Steve Banks, Legal Aid's Chief Attorney, Predicts Budget Cuts Will Have Harsh Impact on Vulnerable New Yorkers, Urges City Council To Restore Funding for Civil Legal Services; Warns Of Uncertainties That Affect Criminal Client Services
MONDAY, MAY 16, 2011

Testifying before the New York City Council, Steven Banks, Legal Aid's Attorney-in-Chief, predicted that the proposed City budget cuts for civil legal services in the FY12 Executive Budget will hurt low-income, struggling families and individuals who are seeking civil legal assistance in the midst of this severe economic downturn. "We are mindful of the extreme financial difficulties that the City is facing. At the same time, these extraordinary economic conditions are having an especially harsh impact on low income New Yorkers and the need for the legal help that the Society provides to these struggling families and individuals is increasing exponentially," Banks told the Council. "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," he said.

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. Homelessness is at record levels in New York City, and unemployment, hunger, and foreclosures continue to be at high levels.

The consequences of eliminating the critical civil legal services funding that the City Council included in the FY11 budget 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.

Regarding criminal defense services supported by the City, Banks said that pending litigation against the City by 18-B attorneys blocking the City from allocating additional work and funding to the Society and the uncertainties of non-City 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.

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 recent $500,000 reduction in the Society’s prior $6.8 million State Aid to Defense funding as well as uncertainty due to federal funding cuts regarding the Society’s continued receipt of a special allocation of $825,000 to support our program for clients with Mental Illness and Chemical Addiction – which is especially troubling because our MICA program has a proven track record of enabling clients to avert repeat offenses."

Banks thanked the City for base-lining long-time Council funding in the Society's FY12 criminal defense budget and the Council for the supplemental criminal defense funding the Council has provided since 2004. "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.