Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman Champions Access to Legal Assistance in Civil Matters, Making New York The Leader In A National Effort for Low-Income Families and Individuals

Last year, New York's Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced an unprecedented effort “to bring us closer to the ideal of equal access to civil justice” by expanding the availability of civil legal assistance for low-income New Yorkers in matters involving the "essentials of life." As part of that initiative, he appointed a task force to develop recommendations to expand access to civil legal assistance and his appointees to the task force include: ongoing funding to address the increasing need for civil legal services in New York State. Among the Task Force members, Chief Judge Lippman has appointed Steven Banks (representing the Society), Deborah Wright (representing the UAW), and Kevin Finnegan (representing SEIU/1199). The task force is chaired by Helaine Barnett, the former head of the federal Legal Services Corporation and the former Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Civil Practice.

At the time, Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told The New York Times that Chief Judge Lippman's announcement is “a huge step” forward for low-income families and individuals with civil legal problems in New York.

As part of this civil legal services initiative, following a joint legislative resolution in June 2010, the Chief Judge conducted hearings on civil legal assistance in each of the four judicial districts in the State. This year, the Chief Judge is conducting a second series of hearings in each of the four districts, the first of which was held Tuesday in Westchester. The remaining hearings will be on Monday, September 26 in Manhattan; October 3 in Albany; and October 6 in Buffalo.

“In every category of legal problem on the civil side we’re continuing to see dramatic increases,” Banks said in an interview this week. “One of the hardest things that our front-line staff has to do is turn away families and individuals whose evictions we know we could stop, whose foreclosures we know we could stop, who we know we could help get food stamps or unemployment benefits or access to health care, but we can’t because of lack of resources.”

In August, in the first phase of the Chief Judge's civil legal services initiative, the Office of Court Administration announced grants to 56 legal services providers throughout the State, including The Legal Aid Society, which will be used for civil legal assistance in maters involving the "essentials of life" such as housing, health care, education, disability, employment income and subsistence income, domestic violence and family stability.

Read media reports below from Reuters, The New York Times, and The New York Law Journal:

Chief judge begins listening tour to gauge legal-services need
NEW YORK, Sept 20 (Reuters)

Earlier this year, Tara Grisby found herself on the verge of losing her apartment in Rockland County, where she lived with her six children.

Her 21-year-old son had been arrested on a drug charge, and Grisby faced a stark choice: cast him out, or the entire family would be evicted.

After contacting her local Legal Aid Society, Grisby struck a deal with the landlord that allowed her to remain in the apartment, get her son into drug treatment, and keep her family together.

The resolution was touted as a success story on Tuesday at the Westchester County Courthouse, where Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman was holding a hearing to address the unmet civil legal needs of low-income New Yorkers.

"Could there be anything more necessary to have than a roof over your head?" Lippman said.

Grisby was one of several witnesses who spoke at the hearing, the first of four to be held throughout the state over the coming weeks.

Lippman first toured the state last year with a task force he created following a joint legislative resolution in June 2010. But this year's hearings follow steep budget cuts throughout the state court system, which have resulted in layoffs, early retirements, and reduced hours.

New York is not alone in suffering under the weight of a struggling economy.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate voted to cut funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which provides money for legal service organizations across the country.


At the start of Tuesday's hearing, Janet Fiore, the district attorney of Westchester County, talked about the plight of domestic-violence victims, who must simultaneously navigate both the criminal and civil legal systems, often without the aid of a lawyer.

"Without civil legal assistance and other services, victims frequently find themselves trapped in relationships with their abusive partners," Fiore said.

Domestic violence victims' need for legal services "outstrips" available resources, she said.

David Boies, a well-known civil litigator and managing partner of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said that a decades-long dip in funding, combined with an increased demand on the justice system during a time of reduced resources, "has resulted in a crisis that we cannot continue to ignore."

Litigants who can't afford counsel require additional supervision and attention from court personnel, Boies said, and bog down the system with cases that might have been resolved if both parties had been represented.

Following last year's hearings, Lippman was able to allocate $12.5 million in the current judiciary budget for civil legal services. The allocation for the next judiciary budget is the subject of the current hearings.

In an interview on Monday, Steven Banks, chief attorney of Legal Aid, said the hearings are necessary to assess the level of continuing need for legal services across the state.

The funding is targeted for legal problems involving the essentials of life, Banks said: problems such as shelter, personal safety and family stability, access to medical care, and subsistence income.

Lippman will conduct one hearing in each of the four Appellate Division Departments. The remaining hearings will be held next Monday, Sept. 26, in Manhattan; on Oct. 3 in Albany; and on Oct. 6 in Buffalo.

The New York Times
City Room
September 16, 2011, 5:03 pm
Legal Assistance in Civil Cases Under Growing Threat
By John Eligon

Both houses of Congress have indicated that they plan to cut back federal financing for the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s largest provider of money to assist people who cannot afford lawyers in civil cases, according to an article in The National Law Journal.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s vote this week to reduce financial support for the corporation by 2 percent comes as Jonathan Lippman, the chief judge of the New York, prepares for another round of hearings to promote the need to increase civil legal services.

Judge Lippman held hearings throughout the state last year and has four more planned this year, the first of which is scheduled for Tuesday in White Plains.

Steven Banks, the chief attorney for the city’s Legal Aid Society, said the Congress’s intended cuts to the Legal Services Corporation sent the wrong message.

“This is exactly the wrong moment to be decreasing legal assistance, which is crucial to helping children and adults living in poverty obtain the basic necessities of life,” said Mr. Banks, whose organization actually does not receive any funds from the federal corporation. Legal Aid opted out several years ago because a condition of accepting the funds would have meant that they would not have been able to represent immigrants facing deportation, Mr. Banks said.

During the economic downturn of the past few years, Mr. Banks said, Legal Aid has seen an increase in requests for legal assistance in areas like obtaining food stamps and unemployment benefits, fighting foreclosure and eviction, and getting orders of protection. Because of a lack of finances, Legal Aid must turn away eight out of every nine people seeking assistance in a civil matter, Mr. Banks said.

“In every category of legal problem on the civil side we’re continuing to see dramatic increases,” Mr. Banks said. “One of the hardest things that our front-line staff has to do is turn away families and individuals whose evictions we know we could stop, whose foreclosures we know we could stop, who we know we could help get food stamps or unemployment benefits or access to health care, but we can’t because of lack of resources.”

The Legal Services Corporation currently receives $404 million in federal funding and the Senate’s proposal would reduce that by $8 million, according to The National Law Journal. But this cut was far less than the 26 percent reduction proposed by the House, the journal reported.

The fickleness of financing for organizations like the Legal Services Corporation was one of the main reasons Judge Lippman said he was moved to urge the State Legislature to act.

“That’s our point, that the Legal Services Corporation and all these other various means, this hodgepodge, patchwork quilt doesn’t do it,” he said. “We have to have a permanent, reliable funding stream for civil legal services. That has to come from the public fisc.”

During last year’s hearings, Judge Lippman said, he discovered that for every dollar spent on civil legal services, $5 are returned to the state. This is because competent representation in civil cases helps keep people off costly government-financed social programs, and lawyers can also help bring money into the state by identifying federal entitlement programs that their clients are eligible for, he said.

The judge also noted that banks do not want to see people go into foreclosure, landlords do not want to have to evict people and hospitals do not want to have to deny services because it takes away from money they could be earning.

“Their bottom lines, their own well being,” Judge Lippman said, “is served by making sure people get civil legal services.”

The New York Law Journal
Lippman to Resume His Push for Expanded Legal Services
By Joel Stashenko
September 15, 2011

ALBANY - With grim economic realities persisting in New York, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman will renew his efforts beginning next week to drive home to the governor and the Legislature the need for greater state funding for civil legal services for the poor.

The chief judge will preside over the first of four planned hearings Tuesday in White Plains along with Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau, New York State Bar President Vincent E. Doyle III of Connors & Villardo in Buffalo and A. Gail Prudenti, presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department. Presiding justices of the other three departments will appear at later hearings in Manhattan, Albany and Buffalo.

The hearings are a response to a 2010 legislative resolution requesting an annual update from the courts about the state of civil legal services. As in last year's sessions, speakers will argue that many lower-income New Yorkers need legal help to maintain such essentials as housing, health care, unemployment insurance and even an adequate diet (NYLJ, Sept. 29, 2010). Testimony is by invitation of the court system only.

"We are certainly aware of what is going on in this economy," Judge Lippman said in an interview. "The economic climate is the worst that it has been, perhaps since the Great Depression. But it is above all the time that civil legal services have to be funded by the state."

Helaine M. Barnett, the chairwoman of a task force appointed by Judge Lippman to evaluate civil legal services, said there has been "absolutely" no decline in the need for those services. If anything, the need has increased in the last year, she said.

"There just are no jobs," she said. In fact, there are concerns that sources of federal and private funding for civil legal services will continue to dry up, she said.

Ms. Barnett is the former head of the civil division in the New York Legal Aid Society and retired president of the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C.

Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society in New York, said that far from seeing a fall in the demand for legal assistance since the first round of hearings last fall, there has been a surge in the number of needy clients.

"The courthouses are full of unrepresented litigants, which has an impact on the courts and on the represented parties and on the government," Mr. Banks said. "Government all too often has to pay the costs of problems that could have been solved with legal assistance at a much earlier and easier point, such as government not having to pay the cost of emergency shelter for people getting evicted from their homes."

Mr. Banks estimated that only about one of nine people who seek aid from his organization can be helped.

Judge Lippman said the presentations before the commission again will focus on the cost to society and to the economy of inadequate funding, including more people losing their homes or seeking welfare benefits.

"What we tried to do last year was not necessarily to have the same people [civil legal services providers] come on and say how much they needed more funding, but we also wanted to have people from the community make it clearer that everyone recognizes this is not just the moral and right thing to do, but that it's in the best interests of everybody, not just those who will get the representation," Judge Lippman said.

Barbara Finkelstein, the executive director of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, said attorney David Boies, managing partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, will appear in White Plains to discuss the costs of unrepresented clients in his capacity as co-chairman of the American Bar Association's Task Force on the Preservation of the Legal System.

"We are really trying to emphasize how important we are to the economy, how important we are to the local governments and how important we are to the court system," said Ms. Finkelstein.

Ms. Barnett's task force recommended the appropriation of an additional $25 million for each of the four fiscal years beginning in 2011-12, growing to $100 million more a year earmarked for civil legal service providers beginning in fiscal 2014-15.

In part, the funding shortfalls have been created by a plunge in funds generated by the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund. Lawyers remit interest earned in those accounts, which hold client escrow.

With the economy struggling, and interest on the accounts running at 1 percent or less, the amount produced by the fund has fallen in the past four years to about $8 million from $32 million.

Judge Lippman authorized a $15 million appropriation in the current state fiscal year to bolster IOLA. In addition, the Judiciary's budget in 2011-12 included $12.5 million for other civil legal services funding.

But the $12.5 million was only half what the task force recommended and half what the courts originally proposed. Thus, Judge Lippman will use the hearings to make a case for getting his program back on track.

New York Law Journal
OCA Distributes $12.5 Million to 56 Civil Legal Service Providers
By Joel Stashenko
August 3, 2011

ALBANY - Court administrators yesterday identified the recipients of $12.5 million in grants from the court's budget to provide civil legal services in New York state.

The funds will be distributed among 56 legal services providers in allotments ranging from $21,300 to just under $1.4 million. Under guidelines laid down by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, the funds will be used for legal representation in areas he has described as the "essentials" of life—housing, health care, education, disability benefits and employment, as well as domestic violence.

Judge Lippman said the $12.5 million represents the first down payment of a new allocation of $100 million over the next four years. He said he had hoped to include $25 million in the 2011-12 state budget for civil legal services (NYLJ, April 1), but $170 million in cuts to the Judiciary's $2.7 billion budget caused the reduction in funds and resulted in more than 300 layoffs within the court system earlier this year.

Both Judge Lippman and Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau said the Judiciary plans to restore the $12.5 million in allocations for civil legal services over the next three years, and will try to meet the additional $75 million the courts set as a goal for funding civil legal services through fiscal year 2014-15.

The allocations announced yesterday were decided by Judge Pfau, Benito Romano, the chairman of the board of the Interest on Lawyer Accounts, and Helaine M. Barnett, chairwoman of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services (NYLJ, Oct. 13, 2010) and the former president of the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C.

Judge Pfau said yesterday that the panel approving the distributions followed Judge Lippman's guidance about supporting groups that could provide specific legal services, like housing and employment, and distributing the money geographically according to each region's percentage of residents within 200 percent or less of the federal poverty threshold.

The Legal Aid Society of New York is in line for the largest grant, $1,358,462.

Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the group, said the additional funding will lay the groundwork for improvements in the civil legal services system.

"With other cuts and increasing demand because of the continuing economic downturn, this funding is a real lifeline to make a difference for low-income families and individuals who we could not otherwise help," he said yesterday.

Anne Erickson of the Albany-based Empire Justice Center, which assists clients with foreclosure, disability, unemployment and other home-based issues, said the funding will represent an important infusion of resources. Her group, which qualified for $278,050, serves clients in the Second, Third and Fourth Appellate Division departments.

Ms. Erickson said much of the new money will have to be used to meet the legal demands of clients buffeted by the current economic turmoil.

"We are constantly running like maniacs just to stand in place," she said.

Lillian Moy, head of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, said the group's $627,000 grant represents a rescue from the loss of about $320,000 in legislative funding in recent years, not to mention the uncertainty in funding for the federal Legal Services Corp. The group represents poor clients in a 16-county area from Clinton County on the Canadian border to south of Albany.

Ms. Moy said the funding loss was a potential "catastrophe" had the courts not stepped in.