The March 2013 ABA Journal contains a story about the famous case of an indigent man who sought counsel for being wrongfully accused of breaking and entering into a poolroom in Panama City, Florida in June 1961. Clarence Earl Gideon, appearing as his own counsel, petitioned the Supreme Court of the State of Florida to review an order and judgment convicting him. Fifty years ago in its decision in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the United States Supreme Court unanimously overruled the 1942 case of Betts v. Brady, holding that the 6th Amendment’s guarantee of council was a fundamental right applicable to the states through the 14th amendment. Justice Black then wrote for the court that it was an “obvious truth” that a fair trial for an indigent defendant could not be guaranteed without assistance of counsel. After the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, Gideon was able to be re-tried with the assistance of counsel and was acquitted.
The ability to be represented by competent counsel is also vital in the civil context of seeking justice for personal injuries. Typically, a person seriously injured through the negligence of others – regardless of whether the injuries stem from an automobile collision, medical negligence, a defective product or other cause – may be unable to return to work either temporally or permanently, and be faced with mounting medical and/or surgical bills seeking to have his or her injuries healed or at least lessened. Such an individual may ordinarily be unable to afford to retain counsel. In that context, it is the contingency fee agreement that has had a similar effect as the decision in Gideon, i.e., it enables an injured individual otherwise unable to pay for counsel to have qualified attorneys seeking justice. Contingency fee agreements provide that an injured person is charged for his lawyer’s time and expenses only if he or she wins and then only out of what the attorney is able to recover. Such agreements level the playing field and enable persons otherwise unable to afford counsel with which to fight to obtain fair and adequate compensation for their injuries and other damages.