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  • December 21, 2022

    Right to Counsel in Wisconsin Civil Suits – and a Call to Action

    Indigent Wisconsin civil litigants face an uphill battle in finding representation. Amanda R.R. Mayer discusses some of the challenges and opportunities for attorneys to help.

    Amanda R.R. Mayer

    pro se litigant

    Many of the divorce and paternity cases I handle involve a pro-se adverse party who frequently has plenty of experience with the criminal court system.

    After those experiences, the adverse party often requests that the court appoint them a lawyer – after all, they’ve had one appointed before in the same courts. After such a request comes a difficult explanation that Wisconsin does not appoint an attorney for civil cases,1 and then the dawning realization at some point after that free or low-cost attorneys are few and far between.

    Civil Gideon

    The idea of civil right to counsel – court-appointed attorneys for civil cases – is commonly known as “civil Gideon” in reference to Gideon v. Wainwright, a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case.2

    Amanda Mayer Amanda R.R. Mayer, Marquette 2012, is the legal projects director at Wisconsin Judicare in Wausau, where she works with victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault and supervises the Family Law Unit, Elder Rights Project, and Victims’ Rights Project.

    The Gideon decision established the scope of the constitutional right to counsel for criminal defendants if they could not afford legal counsel. The implementation of Gideon was left to the individual states. In Wisconsin, it led to the Office of the State Public Defender as a statewide agency to represent indigent defendants.

    Civil Representation In Wisconsin

    To date, however, there is no federal case of similar outcome for civil cases. Some states have adopted Civil Gideon, but Wisconsin is not one of them.

    Civil Gideon comes to the forefront of public discourse and the courts every so often, but so far has not been adopted. In 2012, the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied a rules petition to create a right to publicly funded counsel for indigent litigants, defined as those under 200% of the Federal Poverty Limit. The Court stated an intention to work with various stakeholders to meet the needs of indigent people in need of legal help.

    In the decade since, the challenge of accessing an attorney for indigent individuals involved in Wisconsin courts has arguably worsened,3 especially for those in rural counties.4

    Wisconsin Resources for Representation – and Call to Action

    As concerning as the availability of attorneys is, Wisconsin does have some resources for those in need of legal advice, although much of it is for brief answers rather than extensive, ongoing representation. A comprehensive list of free legal resources is available through the Wisconsin State Law Library.

    Many of these programs utilize volunteer attorneys – so attorneys statewide can make a difference in the lives of Wisconsinites.

    Volunteering with programs such as Judicare Legal Aid or Legal Action of Wisconsin gives attorneys a chance to assist indigent litigants with support from the organizations in a wide variety of civil legal cases.

    Guidance on pro bono work in Wisconsin and opportunities to volunteer are available on the Pro Bono webpage and the Pro Bono Portal on State Bar of Wisconsin’s website.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


    1 Specifically in paternity proceedings, there is a right to an attorney at the establishment phase of a proceeding, but that is an extremely limited appointment and does not apply to matters of custody, placement, child support, or broader family law cases. See Wis. Stat. section 767.83.

    2 Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 US 335 (1963).

    3 In fact, access to an attorney even when Gideon does apply has proved a challenge for Wisconsin citizens. A class action lawsuit was filed in 2022 alleges a backlog of approximately 35,000 pending criminal cases waiting for appointment of counsel. See Antrell Thomas et al v. Anthony S. Evers et al., Brown County Circuit Court case 2022CV1027.

    4 SeeState Bar Board Adopts Plan to Address Rural Lawyer Shortage, Acts on Remote Depositions,” WisBar News, Sept. 24, 2021.

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    Public Interest Law Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Jacob Haller and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Public Interest Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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