Sarbanes, Nadler, Scanlon, Kennedy, Introduce Bill to Improve Equality and Fairness in America’s Civil Justice System

Congressman John Sarbanes (D-Md.) today joined House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Penn.) and Access to Counsel Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) to introduce the Fair Access to Legal Counsel Act (FALCA), a bill to help more Americans secure representation in civil court.

In civil cases, pro se litigants – people who represent themselves in court, including many who cannot afford legal representation – often bring complex claims involving civil rights abuses. However, under current law, federal courts across the country can use different standards for deciding whether to grant a pro se litigant’s request for counsel. As a result of this patchwork of standards, counsel is almost never granted in civil cases, making it difficult for pro se litigants to present their claims in court and creating an added burden on court personnel, who often have to process illegible or incorrectly filed claims.

FALCA would help more litigants access legal representation in court by standardizing the process by which a federal court determines whether to appoint a lawyer.

“Far too many Americans are locked out of our civil justice system because they cannot afford legal representation,” said Congressman Sarbanes, who before coming to Congress worked with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore to help deliver legal services to underserved and underrepresented communities. “This bill will establish national standards that improve fairness and equality in our civil justice system.”

“Access to justice should never depend on money and connections, but unfortunately too many people are essentially priced out of our federal court system,” said Chairman Nadler. “The Fair Access to Legal Counsel Act is an important step towards ensuring that the courthouse doors are truly open.”

“For our justice system to truly deliver justice, we must do all we can to break down the barriers to legal representation for people in need,” said Scanlon, who worked as a public interest lawyer for 35 years prior to coming to Congress. “This bill is a step in the right direction to expand opportunities for representation and to ensure equity in our justice system. I am proud to introduce this bill alongside my colleague, Rep. Sarbanes.”

“Our nation’s profound civil legal aid gap leaves far too many Americans without access to representation that can help them keep their home, their job, their health care and so much more,” said Congressman Kennedy. “By passing FALCA, we can take a step towards making good on our fundamental promise of equal justice under law.”

Key provisions of FALCA include:

  • Establishing a standard set of factors – including the complexity of the claim, the individual’s ability to articulate the claim, the need for expert testimony, and the validity of the claim – for courts to consider when deciding whether to provide a lawyer for an individual who cannot afford one;
  • Authorizing courts to appoint, rather than request, counsel for civil cases;  
  • Requiring courts to inform civil litigants of their right to request counsel if they cannot afford it; and
  • Allowing courts to appoint counsel to assist with limited aspects of litigation, like responding to motions or discovery. 

Additional FALCA co-sponsors include House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet Chairman Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Chair Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.)