What Happens Without a Lawyer?

Daniel Thomas (not his real name) was an elderly man surviving on social security benefits when the small town he lived in cut off his water and power and tried to demolish the home he had built 50 years earlier. Sued by the city for violating building codes that hadn’t applied when he built the house, Thomas found himself in court without a lawyer. Although he suffered from cognitive impairments, the trial court refused to appoint counsel. Thomas qualified for legal aid, but the local program was overcommitted and unable to help him. The city prevailed in the trial, but Thomas found his way to the Northwest Justice Project, which represented him to appeal, arguing a state constitutional right to counsel. Thomas died soon after the appeal was filed, and the appellate court found the claim moot.

“A justice system in which people forfeit rights because they are unrepresented, rather than because the facts … or the law dictates their cases’ outcome, is unacceptable.”
— Prof. Russell Engler, New England School of Law
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