Legal Aid Attorneys Talk About Positive Impact of Case Caps

The New York Law Journal is running a story today about the positive impact on representation that state-imposed caps on the number of children an attorney representing children can have in his/her caseload. Attorneys from the Juvenile Rights Practice of The Legal Aid Society were interviewed for the article.

The New York Law Journal
Caseload Cap Gives Lawyers More Time for Young Clients
By Joel Stashenko

ALBANY - A state-imposed cap that slashed by one third or more the caseloads carried by some attorneys for children in Family Court has fostered higher-quality representation in the two years since it went into effect, according to Legal Aid Society attorneys.

Busy lawyers who often have to glean information about their clients from hurried interviews and quick perusals of files in courthouse hallways report that they now have more time to attend case conferences, to file written motions and to arrange for health care, educational programs and other services to their young clients.

With the cap, "there is definitely more of a sense from people that they can actually do the job," said Amanda White, attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid's Juvenile Rights Project in the Bronx. "You see less of the triaging in hallways," Ms. White added. "In court, you see attorneys being able to respond to opposing arguments better. The more you know about the case, the better you are able to respond to the arguments and to shape a resolution that meets the need of clients." Tamara Steckler, who directs the Legal Aid program citywide, said the cap "has significantly altered our practice in a positive way."

"When you represent kids, it's not just about court practices, it's about many things—arranging for therapy or after-school programs they may qualify for," Ms. Steckler said. "Who is he living with? Who does he have contact with? It involves talking to caregivers. In order to do that, to learn about the child, you need to reach out to many collateral sources to find out about your clients and that is very time-consuming."

In particular, attorneys "are able to actually go out into the field and visit a facility or a home for the purpose of understanding their jobs and our clients' lives better," Ms. White said. The Legislature directed court administrators in 2007 to establish the cap in response to a burgeoning number of filings of child welfare proceedings, especially in the wake of the high-profile case of Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old Brooklyn girl who was beaten to death by her stepfather (NYLJ, April 18, 2007).

The administrative board of the state courts, comprised of the chief judge and the four presiding Appellate Division justices, set the limit of 150 cases, effective on April 1, 2008. (Higher limits are permitted in some cases where attorneys are representing more than one child from a single family or where their cases are not complex.)

Legislation originally proposed a cap of 125 clients, but court administrators sought and obtained the flexibility to establish the ceiling after studying the system.

The new ceiling applies statewide, but has had its biggest impact in New York City. When the caps were introduced, Ms. Steckler estimated that her attorneys carried an average of 220 cases and that some caseloads approached 300. Legal Aid represents more than 30,000 young people each year, with particularly heavy caseloads in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The new standards apparently have not slowed court proceedings. Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of Legal Aid, said the group was able to hire 35 more lawyers and five more attorney supervisors with an infusion of $5 million in additional state funding. The added funding has been maintained despite the state's fiscal problems.

Legal Aid now has 172 staff attorneys and 30 managing attorneys working on child welfare, delinquency and PINS matters.

"It's been a tremendous step forward for children who now can be represented by lawyers with more appropriate caseloads," Mr. Banks said.

The law establishing the case caps directs the state's chief administrative judge, Ann Pfau (See Profile), to study the impact of the limits and report back to the Legislature by the end of this year.

In a recent interview, Judge Pfau said she has heard anecdotally that the caps have made it easier for attorneys to be available for court appearances and to be accessible to judges for conferences and related proceedings.

"Both the attorneys and the judges are seeing that it has had a very positive impact," Judge Pfau said in a recent interview.

Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson (See Profile), administrative judge of New York City Family Court, said the judges she has asked about the change have not seen a "discernible" difference so far in the quality of legal practice. But she suggested that could be because lawyers were vigorously advocating for children before imposition of the limits, despite being overworked in some instances.

Court administrators also have set a schedule to introduce caseload caps for attorneys representing indigent criminal defendants in New York City by 2014 of no more than 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors in a 12-month period (NYLJ, March 11).

The National Association of Counsels for Children has recommended that court-appointed attorneys represent no more than 100 clients at one time. With a cap of 150 cases, attorneys in the Bronx still face a formidable task, said Ms. White.

"Listen, it's still 150 clients, and for 150 clients with the level of need we see here, it is still more work than anyone can do," she said. "But I definitely see many fewer people who are feeling like they cannot do their jobs than before."