What Will It Take to Provide Fair Trials

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The PA House Democratic Policy Committee held a public hearing on September 26 to examine how to better fund fair trials in Pennsylvania.  State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks), who is Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, requested the hearing and served as chairman.

I was asked to testify at this important hearing to discuss what is required for the state to provide fair trials to civil litigants. The other witnesses at the hearing were Helen Stolinas, Chief Public Defender of Bradford County, president of Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania; and Tom Hogan, Chester County District Attorney, and a member of Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

The timing of this hearing is appropriate and timely for the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network in that on Monday the Pennsylvania House passed House Bill 1337, which amends the Access to Justice Act, by adding $1 to the filing fee for certain courthouse filings, as a way to help support legal services.

The vote on this bill was 198-0 and I want to thank all of the members of the House for their support on this important legislation. The title of the legislation is appropriately called the Access to Justice Act, since it addresses the need for Pennsylvanians to have access to our civil justice system through legal services.

Yesterday's hearing gave me the opportunity to again set forth the importance for all Pennsylvanians to have access to the civil justice system and to have the assistance of counsel where it is necessary. The assistance of legal counsel is vital for litigants to have an opportunity to present their legal issues in an effective manner. The need for the assistance of counsel is especially important where basic human needs such as shelter, safety, health, sustenance and child custody are at stake.

I am pleased to see the question of access to justice again being addressed by this committee and I was honored to be given the opportunity to offer my testimony to the committee. The full text of my testimony to the committee may be viewed by clicking here.

More information about the Policy Committee Hearing and hearing materials, are available from the PA House website at http://www.pahouse.com/PolicyCommittee/documents/2013/hdpc092613.pdf

The PA Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf (R-Montgomery, Bucks), will also be holding its third public hearing on Civil Legal Representation of the Indigent: Have We Achieved Equal Access to Justice? on October 29, 2013 in Pittsburgh. I would also thank that committee for taking up the important question of access to the legal system by civil litigants this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright, the case that established the right to counsel for criminal defendants.

Access to the courts with effective legal counsel is necessary for us to obtain the goal of equal access to justice. We in the legal aid system deeply appreciate the support of our legislators, in both houses and on both sides of the aisle, as we pursue this goal.