Picture this: you’ve been summoned to court by your estranged spouse to fight for custody of your children. You have no idea what a probate and family court is or where it is. You can barely take the time off work to attend court, let alone pay for a lawyer. You realize that you must represent yourself to a judge. The only courtrooms you’ve seen are on TV, and you don’t know the first thing about the system. You’re scared and confused. What do you do? 

This scenario is not uncommon in the American civil trial court system. Unlike the criminal system, the civil system does not guarantee a right to an attorney if you cannot afford one. Because of this, many people are forced to become pro se litigants, or those who represent themselves. 

While it may appear to be more cost-effective, research shows that there are many downsides to acting as a pro se litigant. For example, pro se litigants are required to act like lawyers when they may have no legal background or understanding of the court system at all. Many judges expect them to adhere to the same guidelines as seasoned lawyers, and they must fill out the same paperwork and include the same briefs. Even if one manages to accomplish all of that, the chances of pro se litigants winning their case is drastically lower than people who have lawyers, especially if the opposing party has counsel.

This creates a significant level of inequity between those who can afford lawyers and those who cannot. Effectively, rich people can seek justice or recourse through the courts simply because they have the means to pay for it. 

I saw this imbalance every day in my summer internship with the Essex Probate Court in Massachusetts. In a civil court, probate and family matters usually include wills, estates, divorce, custody, and child support. People would come into the registry, where you file documents for your case, and would have no idea what to do or where to start. Many would cry tears of frustration or beg me to help them. Many would yell and demand we fill out the forms for them. Others did not speak English and could not understand my instructions.

Natalie Caffrey

Seeing these people in distress struck a chord. I was helpless behind the counter, because as a court employee I was not allowed to give them legal advice or even explain basic procedures to them. The only thing I could do was point to a sign that read “Lawyer of the Day” and explain that they could wait in line for free legal advice. But even that was often unhelpful for many of them. The lawyer was on Zoom three times a week for three hours at a time and could only meet with a limited number of people within that short time frame. That left hundreds of other people out of luck. 

In Connecticut, despite being another wealthy and liberal state, this is also an issue. In fact, Connecticut does not have a “lawyer of the day” program like Massachusetts. The only universal resource available is the Connecticut Judicial website containing FAQs and the “forms” section. This information is clearly insufficient to help average people who have never stepped foot in a courtroom before.

The state has tried to address the issue of inadequate legal counsel before. In 2016, a task force recommended a series of trial runs of legal counsel for eviction and restraining order cases. After a pilot program providing free legal counsel for some cases in the Waterbury courts a 2019 report recommended expanding the programs. In response, Connecticut created a right to counsel program for eviction or housing cases for those who financially qualify.

In addition to governmental support, the Connecticut Bar Association does offer online free legal answers, and Connecticut Legal Services will sometimes take cases pro bono depending on financial status, but they cannot take everyone, and their applicant waitlist is years long.

While the steps taken to correct this inequity are helpful, the state and non-profit actors still have strict financial threshold requirements that some people, although still considered poor, do not meet.

It seems clear that the system is unfair to the poor and even many middle income people. The best remedies here are not easy or cheap. The most progressive solution to this issue is Civil Gideon. Civil Gideon is named for Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case which mandated representation for all in criminal cases — it aims to extend that right to the civil courts. With this principle, states could begin to close the socioeconomic gaps seen in the legal system. Children would be better represented in custody and parental disputes. Poor people would finally get the justice they deserve.

In an ideal world, this approach would be the perfect solution to our problem. 

Sadly, the likelihood of getting legislators to spend millions of dollars on setting up lawyers in every state and every court across the country seems far-fetched. But shouldn’t states that claim to care for the poor finally put their money where their mouth is? 

I challenge Connecticut to be that state. To reevaluate the court systems and expand on their efforts from the 2016 pilot programs to develop a statewide initiative. Connecticut should be the first state to enact Civil Gideon. Because everyone deserves justice, no matter your pay grade. 

Natalie Caffrey is a senior at Trinity College, majoring in Public Policy & Law with a minor in French.