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The Right to Counsel

Comparing access to legal and medical services illustrates the ambivalence of society toward the provision of essential services. Most persons believe that there is a basic right to medical treatment, a belief embodied in the extensive state and federal systems for providing medical services to indigents. The courts, however, have never accepted a constitutional right to medical care. Conversely, while the U.S. Supreme Court has found a constitutional right to legal services in several situations, society has provided only a rudimentary system for providing legal services to those who cannot afford them.

In the criminal justice system, it has been recognized that a poor person cannot exercise the right to effective counsel because of the expense. Lack of representation so compromises a criminal defendant's rights that the U.S Supreme Court requires all criminal defendants to have appointed counsel at government expense, if the defendant is unable to pay a lawyer. The court has not recognized a corresponding right to counsel in personal injury or business litigation. There is no provision of legal services for matters such as litigation to recover compensation for an injury. A person needing civil law services must purchase them in the marketplace. For legal problems that do not generate money, such as adoption proceedings or writing wills, a person either pays the attorney's fees or does without the service. For potentially money-generating situations, the contingent fee system has evolved (see Chapter 2).

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