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Activists call for right to counsel in child custody cases

Legal advocates and activists are calling on state and federal governments to adopt laws that would provide individuals in civil cases with rights similar to those granted in criminal cases. The U.S. Constitution guarantees legal representation to criminal defendants that cannot afford an attorney. Now, some people are pushing for a similar system for civil and non-criminal cases, such as those regarding child custody. If it were to happen, it would be a landmark change in civil law in the United States.

One woman recalled how she could not afford a lawyer when her husband took her three children to Maryland from another state. Because she had no legal recourse, she explains that she had no choice but to move closer to her children.

Eventually, the woman was connected with a Maryland organization that provides free legal representation to individuals who are or wish to become involved in civil cases. With the help of her appointed attorney, the woman was able to win joint legal custody of her children.

The attorney that represented the Maryland mother says she believes the right to legal counsel should be a right extended in all trials, not just criminal cases. She added that it's difficult for some people who don't have the means to be unaware of the resources that are available.

Other supporters say that studies of systems that ensure the right to legal counsel in civil cases shows that such systems can lead to cheaper health care, foster care and law enforcement. Maryland is currently considering adopting a pilot program that would enforce the right to civil counsel.

Clearly this is an issue worth looking into. No parent should face having to lose their child just because they cannot afford legal representation. There are options available for low-income people out there who feel like they are the victim of a system that leaves them on the outside looking in.

Source: Voice of America, "Activists Push for Right to Counsel in US Civil Cases," Mana Rabiee, Dec. 2, 2011

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