If Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc, 274 lawyers, 7 judges and 2 court commissioners,have it their way, all indigent persons that are involved in civil lawsuits involving  issues of  “basic human needs” will be given a free lawyer.

According to a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article and ABA Journal article the Wisconsin Supreme Court has been petitioned and asked to require that all indigent persons involved in civil lawsuits that involve issues impacting an individual’s basic human needs, such as sustenance, shelter, clothing, heat, medical care, safety, and child custody and placement, be provided a free lawyer to represent them in th elegal proceedings.

The proposed cost on taxpayers would be anywhere from $50 million to $80 million per year.

If this “civil Gideon rule” is passed you can expect that almost every tenant that wants one will be given a free lawyer to defend them in an eviction action.  This will greatly affect landlords on many fronts.  First, it will result in a delay in the overall process of removing a tenant from a rental unit thus allowing the tenant to remain in the rental unit longer and result in the landlord losing more rent.  Second, it will increase a landlord’s costs by (most likely) increasing the cost to file an eviction action, and then result in higher attorney’s fees should the landlord opt to retain a lawyer; if the landlord handles the eviction himself/herself then s/he will lose more time and money by having to take off work.  Third, assuming that the $50 million – $80 million estimated costs to pay for the “free lawyers” are not entirely covered by an increase in civil filing fees, landlords will most likely see an increase in taxes in some way, shape, or form.

Since the majority of the eviction cases that I encounter involve the tenant not paying rent and has no legal defense, I see this proposed rule as only causing additional court congestion and delay.

In a state such as Wisconsin, which already has very tenant-friendly laws and regulations to begin with, and has courts that often go out of their way to give tenant’s additional time to vacate (in violation of state statutes), and even goes so far as to provide legal advice to tenants (which they should not be doing), this civil Gideon rule, if passed, will make it even more difficult for landlords to continue to survive in the rental industry.

Added October 19, 2010 — Here is a recent blog post by David Ziemer of the Wisconsin Law Journal about the Civil Gideon rule.

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