Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Urges City Council To Restore Funding for Civil Legal Services; Warns Of Pending 18-B Litigation and State Funding Uncertainties That Affect Criminal Client Services

Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, testified before the New York City Council last Friday on the impact the Fiscal Year 2012 Preliminary Budget will have on client services. Banks told the Council that proposed budget cuts for civil legal services will hurt families and individuals who need legal help in the midst of this severe economic downturn.

"The numbers of vulnerable New Yorkers who are seeking our civil legal assistance have increased dramatically during this downturn even as our City funding has decreased and we are forced to turn away eight out of every nine New Yorkers who seek our help. With the new proposed City cuts, we will have to turn away more families and individuals who need legal aid to obtain unemployment and disability benefits, flee from domestic violence, and prevent evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness – which is at record levels in New York City."

Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice, testified with Banks. Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW President Deborah Wright and 1199 SEIU representative Lillie Carino were also at the hearing.

The more than 38,000 civil legal matters which the Society handled last year involved constituents in literally every zip code in the City: 28% of our cases are from the Bronx, 24% from Brooklyn, 21% from Queens, 19% from Manhattan, and 7% from Staten Island. However, we are able to help only one out of every nine New Yorkers who seek our help with civil legal problems because of lack of resources. The situation has become particularly dire since the economic downturn which is having such a harsh impact in our client communities, and the need for our civil legal services is more crucial than ever.  Homelessness is at record levels in New York City, and unemployment, hunger, and foreclosures continue to be at high levels. 

The FY2012 Preliminary Budget proposes to eliminate all civil legal services funding for the civil legal services initiatives that the Council funded in the FY11 budget. The consequences of eliminating this critical Council civil legal services funding will be dire – increases in evictions, foreclosures and homelessness, increases in the number of women and children who cannot escape domestic violence, increases in the numbers of immigrants lawfully in this country who will be wrongfully deported, and increases in the numbers of children and adults who will go without subsistence income, health care, and food because of bureaucratic mistakes that cannot be challenged effectively in the absence of counsel.

Banks pointed out that since the economic downturn began, we have seen unprecedented increases in requests for help in core areas of need:

  • a 29% increase in requests for help with unemployment benefits and employment problems;
  • a 40% increase in requests for health law assistance and help obtaining Medicaid, Medicare, and other health care coverage;
  • a 12% increase in requests for help to obtain food stamps, federal disability benefits, and public assistance;
  • a 16% increase in requests for domestic violence and family law help;
  • a 15% increase in requests for help from current or former low wage workers with earned income tax credit or other low-income taxpayer problems;
  • a 21% increase in requests for eviction prevention representation;
  • a stunning 800% increase in requests for foreclosure defense assistance

Regarding criminal defense services provided by the City, Banks said that pending litigation against the City by 18-B attorneys and the uncertainties of State funding will affect the current level of client services. "The City’s inability to provide the caseload and associated funding to Legal Aid that it wants to means that the Society will not be able to maintain its current level of client services. Unless the litigation challenging the City’s right to award of these additional cases to the Society is expeditiously resolved in favor of the City and Legal Aid, Legal Aid’s ability to provide the following client services and staffing will compromised: paralegal assistance based on Rikers Island; systemic client representation such as the monitoring and enforcement of the 24-hour arrest-to-arraignment rule that was established through Legal Aid’s litigation; and a number investigator, paralegal, social worker, staff attorney and supervisory positions. The paralegal and social worker positions affect members of 1199 SEIU and the staff attorney positions affect members of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW," Banks testified.

Banks added that "[t]he pending litigation is also impeding Legal Aid’s ability to implement the Chief Judge’s case cap limitation that the Society is required to phase in over the four-year implementation period set in State law. This problem is compounded by the State’s proposed reduction in the Society’s $6.8 million Aid to Defense funding and uncertainty as to when and how those funds will be provided; continued receipt of a special State allocation of $825,000 to support our program for clients with Mental Illness and Chemical Addiction is equally uncertain – which is especially troubling because our MICA program has a proven track record of enabling clients to avert repeat offenses."

Banks thanked the Council for the supplemental criminal defense funding the Council has provided since 2004 that the City has now base-lined for FY12. "As a result of the City’s determination to include this funding in our budget, we do not need to seek a restoration of these funds for FY12," he said.