Clients, attorneys and judges said Thursday that most low-income people don't get the legal help they desperately need in civil cases, where they can find themselves fighting to win custody of their children or keep their homes.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, held a committee hearing on the unmet need. He is considering whether Pennsylvania should give more money to legal-aid services.

Some funding is provided by collecting interest on lawyers' trust fund accounts, a source that has run dry recently due to low interest rates. The state also contributed $2.4 million to the services this year. 

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille argued that it's a no-brainer: Pay for the services by carving out a dedicated line item in the state budget.

"We should be treating civil legal services for indigent individuals and families as an important government service," he said. "Like roads, like police services, like the courts."

Judges said that the absence of adequate legal-aid services is clogging the courts and forcing them to make decisions without all the necessary information. 

Lawyers said it also has tragic consequences for poor people, many of whom they turn away due to lack of resources. Because low-income people often can't afford a lawyer while facing eviction, attorney Michele Cohen said, bad landlords feel like they can do whatever they please. 

When one woman asked her landlord to fix a broken heating pipe, the landlord reported her to the Department of Human Services for housing her children without heat, Cohen said. According to Cohen, the tenant was fully up to date on her rent.

About 80 percent of low-income people lack representation when facing legal problems, attorneys said.

Free legal help in civil cases seen as continuation of 'Gideon'

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which gave poor people the right to free legal representation in criminal cases.

Some advocates called the session the "civil Gideon hearing." They argued that legal aid is a good investment for taxpayers.

They point to people such as Joe Miller, who wasn't able to obtain medical assistance for his autistic son until he met a pro-bono attorney. Before then, Miller said his son was barely functioning. 

"I'm proud to say, today, [he] graduates from community college," he said. "While taking classes, he has been holding a part-time, weekend job, decreasing his reliance on Social Security disability."

Securing the extra funds in Harrisburg will be difficult. The Independent Fiscal Office recently discovered that the state is going to be $220 million short by the end of this budget year, and Republican state leaders have little appetite for tax hikes.