cityhall3.jpgSan Francisco residents involved in serious civil cases could soon have legal counsel available under an ordinance passed by the city’s Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The proposal, introduced by board president David Chiu, will require the board to vote within six months on plans to set up a one-year pilot program to provide legal assistance in certain civil cases, while also declaring San Francisco the nation’s first “right to civil counsel” city.

Chiu said that while low-income residents are bound by the U.S. Constitution to have legal assistance provided in criminal issues as minor as shoplifting, no such requirement is in place for serious civil matters like child custody or shelter cases.

For example, he said, in 2009, 95 percent of child custody cases in San Francisco were filed by a party who was self-represented.

Under the proposal, a partnership between the city, the Bar Association of San Francisco and private legal aid organizations, attorneys working pro bono would assist residents in those serious civil cases while the city would pay for a single staff member to coordinate the program.

The board gave initial approval to the proposal in a 9-2 vote.

Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Carmen Chu were the two board members to vote no.

“Financially, we are already unable to provide the resources we’re constitutionally required to have for the public defender’s office,” Elsbernd said after the vote, adding that the district attorney’s and city attorney’s offices are also arguably understaffed.

“The idea to create a new city department under this fiscal environment is unwise,” he said.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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