A D.C. court advisory committee has recommended that Washington attorneys -- including thousands of lobbyists and government lawyers who do not regularly practice law or maintain law offices in the District of Columbia -- either volunteer their time or donate cash to help represent needy persons in civil lawsuits here.
The panel, appointed by the city's judges and members of the bar here last year, made the proposal after a year-long study showed that at least 64,000 persons did not have lawyers in various kinds of D.C. Superior Court cases last year.
Since existing public and private agencies providing legal aid to needy defendants here already have significant backlogs, the court panel said the legal profession as a whole should "take the lead during the coming decade to assure that legal representation becomes increasingly available to persons who cannot afford counsel for civil matters.
The committee, chaired by D.C. Appeals Court Judge John Ferren, noted that legal assistance was especially necessary in cases when litigation is "forced upon" poor defendants in landlord -- tenant disputes and family matters, for example, "or is otherwise essential to preserve their rights and legitimate interests."
The proposal for increased voluntary participation in civil cases by attorneys will be presented to a meeting next month of the D.C. Judicial Conference. The conference is made up of judges of the city court system and about 200 other members of the legal comunity here. That body cannot enforce the plan, but merely approve its concept.
The most controversial section of the proposal is expected to be the plan that attorneys and law students volunteer in large numbers to represent litigants here.
The panel rejected a plan that lawyers be required to serve at no charge, but said instead that lawyers have a personal responsibility to budget their time to make sure they are available to voluntarily donate their time to help the needy.
Under the proposal, a lawyer would be asked either to accept as a minimum one civil court case appointment, provide 40 legal hours of free legal service, or donate the lesser of $200 or 1 percent of his or her income.
Similar volunteer plans are in effect in other jurisdictions, Judge Ferren noted. The panel said it reached the $200 figure because it felt it was "high enough to deter automatic selection of the financial alternative, yet low enough to avoid chilling its use."
The advisory group also recommended that the D.C. Superior Court change its rules to allow government attorneys and lobbyists to accept appointments to civil cases.
Those rules now limit the practice of law in Superior Court to attorneys who maintain an office here, and excludes a pool of about 8,000 government attorneys and lobbyists who are D.C. bar members, the advisory panel said.
In addition, the panel asked that numerous other government attorneys and lobbyists who are not members of the D.C. bar, but who work in the city, also be allowed to practice in the city court system.
Law students currently are limited in the type of work they are allowed to do in court before they are admitted to the bar, and the panel also suggests that those rules be liberalized.
Although 64,000 persons did not have lawyers in their Superior Court civil cases last year, there is no indication that lawyers were needed in each of those cases, Ferren noted. One of the purposes of having more lawyers available to the court system would be to determine whether a litigant needs an attorney, Ferren said.
The panel said it was "persuaded that in many categories of cases, most . . . would like to have legal assistance (and) are unable to obtain counsel because of their limited means."