CA court reminds of discretion to appoint counsel for prisoners

08/06/2019, Litigation, All Basic Human Needs

In Smith v. Ogbuehi, 2019 Cal. App. LEXIS 721 (2019), a Court of Appeals held that the trial court had abused its discretion by responding to a prisoner’s request for appointed counsel by claiming it lacked the authority.  The Smith court pointed out that such discretion was vested as part of the right of access to the courts outlined in Wantuch v. Davis, 39 Cal. Rptr. 2d 47, 51-52 (Ct. App. 1995) and Apollo v. Gyaami, 167 Cal. App. 4th 1468 (2008).  The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that Smith had waived any access-to-court claim since he only requested appointment of counsel and didn’t mention Wantuch, stating that “when an indigent plaintiff in a civil action requests the appointment of counsel, that request should be interpreted as invoking the right of meaningful access to the courts, even if the indigent plaintiff does not explicitly mention that right. Courts generally are required to give pleadings a liberal, yet reasonable, construction, and the same approach is warranted when an indigent, self-represented plaintiff requests the appointment of counsel.”  It then reversed for further findings by the trial court, holding that there was a reasonable possibility the outcome of Smith’s case might have been different with counsel but that “the circumstances are not so overwhelming that the only proper exercise of discretion is the appointment of counsel.”

Appointment of Counsel: discretionary Qualified: yes