Monday, November 17, 2014

In Forma Pauperis

On one fateful day in Florida a man named Clarence Earl Gideon broke into a poolroom with the intent to commit a misdemeanor.[1] This action constituted a felony in the state of Florida, and the man was charged with the crime. After being arrested, Gideon requested the assistance of counsel in his case. Gideon’s request for counsel was denied by the trial court, and Gideon went on to represent himself in his proceeding.[2] As a layperson, he put on his best defense. Gideon made an opening argument, performed cross- examinations, presented his own witnesses, refused to testify himself[3], and even made a closing argument. Alas, his greatest efforts were unsuccessful, and he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. But, this is where the story begins.

            On appeal to the Supreme Court Gideon argued that his rights were violated by not being appointed counsel. Ironically, for this appeal Gideon was appointed counsel because he was acting in forma pauperis[4]. The Court found in favor of Gideon saying, “The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.”[5] In every criminal case a litigant is guaranteed counsel.  In civil matters, however, Gideon does not apply. Hypothetically, if a person were to violently rape and murder 17 women, 8 men, and a goat, that individual would be guaranteed an attorney to ensure justice. Yet, if a mother of 4 was wrongfully evicted from her home and subsequently lost custody of her children, that mother would not be guaranteed the same protection from the system.

            The University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts’ Truancy Court Program (TCP) uses a holistic approach to address the problem of truancy in Baltimore City schools. Truancy is often not the major problem but is a mere symptom of a deeper issue. Every known aspect of a student’s life is taken into account in order to offer services to the child and to the child’s parents, thus alleviating underlying causes of truancy. One of the services provided by the Truancy Court Program is limited legal advice concerning the child and the child’s living situation. Common issues that these families face are the need for creation or enforcement of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), homelessness, drug abuse, and poverty. The TCP gives a select few families access to invaluable legal advice that these families may not have access to otherwise. For example, a parent or child may reveal at the TCP session that they are homeless. With assistance from the TCP, students have received assigned “yellow bus service” or school provided cab service to commute to and from school.[6]

            The lack of a Civil Gideon[7] in our court system has caused many to question the true legitimacy of the legal process, especially for those who cannot afford an attorney. Projects like the TCP help to mitigate the damage that the pro se[8] problem creates, and this impact must continue to expand and intensify until the system is corrected. Remember that the highest court in the nation recognizes that even the educated layman will do little better than clumsily stumble through the system without representation, and then consider that the majority of pro se litigants are unrepresented because they cannot afford an attorney. The conclusion that you reach is that the pro se problem disproportionately impacts the low income community, those who often need representation the most. The only things that overshadow barriers to justice presented in cases between two pro se litigants are the barriers to justice facing a pro se litigant who must argue against a represented party.

            When discussing pro se litigants, it is also important to recognize that many people without access to legal minds may never know how or why to get into court to begin with. While participating in the TCP, I have learned from our attorneys that there are specific requirements for IEPs and for those experiencing homelessness. This knowledge was also communicated to  parents, who are then able to put that knowledge to work.

            In an ideal world the TCP would not be necessary, because everyone would have access to legal representation. We do not live in an ideal world, however--in fact far from it.  So we must work to move closer to a more perfect world. An examination of just one of the many needs that the TCP fills shows just how important the services the TCP offers are to those that it serves. Hopefully, the program will continue to grow and expand not only in Maryland but also in the other 49 states of the union until we can say that we finally have a truly perfect union.   

[1] For a full review of the case, including facts and holdings, please see Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
[2] The trial judge explained to Gideon that the laws of Florida required representation in cases concerning capital offenses.
[3] In criminal cases, the defendant has the right to refuse to testify under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This is quite often in the best interest of the defendant for many reasons.
[4] In forma pauperis is Latin for “in the character or in the manner of a pauper”
[5] Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 344-345 (1963).
[6] For insight into issues with transportation in Baltimore City Schools please see CFCC blog entry “The Wheels on the Bus and the Truancy Court Program” by Samantha Sammartano posted Friday, November 7, 2014 at 12:47 pm.
[7] “Civil Gideon” is the right to an attorney in civil cases. This right has yet to be established.
[8] “Pro se” is Latin meaning “for self.” It is the term used to describe litigants that are not represented by counsel.



  1. The intersection of the law to the lives of the children in the Truancy Court Program is profound. Many of these children suffer from issues that are much deeper than just truancy. The Truancy Court Program does so much for those students who are in it and provides legal resources to them, such as getting their IEPs, which would otherwise be unavailable or remain unaddressed. It is important to recognize the amount of people who would significantly benefit from legal assistance in the matters that affect people the most--such as housing and domestic issues. However, the folks needing such assistance the most are often swept under the rug and are forced to deal with these situations on their own, often to their detriment. Or alternatively, these pro se litigants have lost faith in the justice system because it has failed to render justice. On any given day, the courts are filled with pro se litigants trying to litigate their own cases. However, as is noted above, the legal system is complex and is challenging even for those who do it for a living. While there are legal services available to some indigent litigants, there are certainly not enough.

    In a perfect world, we would have the tools and resources available to those who need to use such resources. However, our world is less than perfect, but resources like the Truancy Court Program are a stepping stone to bettering the lives of those who need such assistance. The Truancy Court Program addresses issues holistically and individually. Like the children in the truancy court program, pro se litigants are ultimately facing multiple issues. Perhaps it is worth exploring a system that is a one-stop shop for a litigants needs?

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