Unmet Need for Civil Legal Aid

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's first hearing on the increasing need for civil legal services in New York State was held yesterday at the First Department, Appellate Division. Among those testifying were clients from The Legal Aid Society and other civil legal services organizations, judges, and business and community leaders as well as City Council Speaker Chris Quinn. Chief Judge Lippman has appointed a Task Force to make recommendations for ongoing funding to address the increasing need for civil legal services. 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). There will be a total of four hearings throughout the State.

Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told the New York Times that since 2008, there has been a 40 percent increase at the Legal Aid Society in requests for help on health care issues and an 800 percent increase in requests for help with foreclosures.




The New York Times
September 28, 2010
In Hearings, a Campaign for Legal Aid in Civil Cases
By John Eligon

She had come to America, lured from her home in Mangalore, India, by the prospect of child care work that would pay prevailing wages and offer weekends off.

But once Juliet D’Souza began working for a family on Long Island, she had to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for which she was paid $600 a month, she said. The family scared her into silence by telling her that she could be arrested because she did not have a visa, she said.

“I did not know that there were laws here that could protect people like me,” Ms. D’Souza said on Tuesday, testifying at a hearing on expanding civil legal services to the indigent. “I thought I had no other options.”

Ms. D’Souza was one of five people who testified about how they had been helped out of dire situations by lawyers who represented them in civil cases, where, unlike in criminal cases, there is no unequivocal right to a lawyer.

The hearing, held at the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, was the first in a series of four scheduled for the coming week that are being convened by Jonathan Lippman, the chief judge of New York State, who is trying to make access to civil legal services a hallmark of his tenure.

Judge Lippman has already convened a task force to prepare a report urging more financing for lawyers to represent people who cannot afford one in civil cases. Judge Lippman said he planned to deliver the report to the Legislature by Dec. 1, along with the judiciary’s budget request, which, for the first time, will ask for money specifically directed toward paying for civil legal services.

With this new budgetary initiative, the judiciary’s request could grow from the $2.7 billion the state awarded it for the current fiscal year. In an economy still weak, Judge Lippman acknowledged that asking the state for more money might be an uphill task.

But these hearings and the task force are part of a larger campaign to change the way people think about civil legal services, the judge said.

“There are certain fundamentals for a civil society, for a moral society,” Judge Lippman said in an interview. “This is one of those priorities.”

It is “as important as funding the schools, funding the hospitals,” the judge added.

Since 2008, there has been a 40 percent increase at the Legal Aid Society in requests for help on health care issues and an 800 percent increase in requests for help with foreclosures, according to Steven Banks, the society’s chief attorney.

After about six months working for the family on Long Island, Ms. D’Souza said, she ran away. A friend connected her with Legal Aid, she said, which helped her collect the money the family owed her and helped her acquire a visa.

Melanea Richardson said that after her husband beat her, she left him and had to apply for a Section 8 voucher to afford housing. After the program awarded her a voucher, Ms. Richardson said, it then suspended it, saying she had missed a deadline.

Ms. Richardson turned to Legal Services NYC, another group that provides representation to the poor. Legal Services sued the program and got Ms. Richardson’s voucher restored, she said. The outcome helped her avoid having to move back in with her husband, she said.

“If I had not had their help,” she said, “I would have been in a very grave situation. I would still be assaulted by my husband.”


NY Daily News
State's chief judge on mission to help poor New Yorkers with free legal aid, need greater than ever
September 28, 2010
By Alison Gendar

The state's chief judge is on a mission to make free legal services available to more poor New Yorkers.

State, federal and local dollars for legal assistance have dwindled as the economy has tanked.

Yet the need for legal advice by those who can't afford it has never been greater, as record numbers battle foreclosures, evictions and the red tape required to get health care or disability benefits, noted Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

"The numbers are just going through the roof," said Lippman, who has created a task force to find ways to expand access to legal services. Without legal help, the poor "can't get a fair shake," he said during the task force's first hearing yesterday at the state's Appellate Division, First Department, on Madison Ave.

New Yorkers charged with a crime are guaranteed free legal representation if they can't afford a lawyer. But there's no automatic support for low-income people facing civil fights such as mortgage foreclosure or family court issues.

"The recession has had a major impact on our work, particularly for clients dealing with debt," said New York City Bar President Samuel Seymour. "Our bankruptcy program is busier than ever. The number of consumer debt calls to our hotline has increased 40% in the past few years."

Lars Anderson told the panel he was unable to work after he got sick in 2004. By 2008, he'd burned through savings and credit, his Manhattan apartment had been sold out from under him and he was about to be evicted.

Anderson, 48, managed to win one round in court on his own, getting a temporary stay on foreclosure while acting as his own lawyer.

But MFY Legal Services took his case, overturned the sale, reduced the interest rate on the home loan "and allowed me to remain in my house," he told the panel. "They saved my house and may have saved my life."

Lippman said the task force planned to recommend ways to fund legal services that are less dependent on the vagaries of the economy and the state Legislature.

But the job is daunting.

In 2009, New York's per capita spending on civil legal programs was $3.68 compared with an average of $23.51 in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont, according to the New York State Interest on Lawyer Account Fund, which provides grants for legal services.


The New York Law Journal
First Department Kicks Off Hearings on Civil Legal Services for Poor
By Joel Stashenko

Judges told a hearing on improving funding for civil legal services yesterday that self-represented parties—now numbering more than 2 million a year—are bogging down the state court system and putting judges in an uncomfortable position as they strive to remain neutral while insuring that litigants get their day in court."It is very difficult from a judge's point of view," said Judge Jeffrey K. Oing, supervising judge for Manhattan Civil Court (See Profile). "We straddle the fence. We're under an ethical obligation in terms of what advice we can give to the self-represented because virtually all of the plaintiffs, the debt collector or the bank…have an attorney and we sit there and hear what the plaintiff is telling us, yet at the same time we're really hamstrung in terms of what we can tell or offer to the self-represented defendant."

Judge Oing was one of the witnesses at the first of four hearings organized by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman as part of an effort to build his case for additional funding for civil legal services for the poor. The Office of Court Administration estimates that only one in five people who need legal assistance get it. Officials speculate that the problem has gotten worse during the recession.

Ruben A. Martino (See Profile), a judge at the Harlem Justice Center, said courts "bend over backwards" to try to "compensate" when people appear in court without counsel.

Presiding Justice Luis A. Gonzalez of the Appellate Division, First Department (See Profile), said the shortage of civil legal services lawyers creates an "uneven" situation in which litigants who can afford counsel have the advantage over their adversaries.

"Sometimes in order to balance the scales of justice, the judge gets involved, sometimes improperly," said Justice Gonzalez, who conducted the hearing with Judge Lippman, Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau and Stephen P. Younger, president of the New York State Bar Association.

With too few attorneys available to provide low-cost representation, the poor often must navigate complicated rules in litigation over housing, foreclosures, consumer credit, child custody disputes and other civil matters.

But the chief judge also said he takes a dim view of judges who help unrepresented litigants by, for instance, prompting them to get evidence into the record when they would not otherwise know how to do so.

"I respect judges who are sometimes drawn into that, but it's not a healthy thing for the system," Judge Lippman said in an interview after the hearing. "We are not advocates for either side; we're judges. I think that it has become almost a necessity, but it is a very counterproductive thing in delivering justice. We're human beings and we don't take off our hats as human beings when we go on the bench, but our role is to be the arbiter."

Judge Lippman said he hopes to use information gathered at the hearings and through a questionnaire to legal services groups to make the case with the Legislature and the next governor for a more reliable source of funding for civil legal services, mainly from state tax dollars.

'Hit and Miss' Funding

Current funding is provided through what Judge Lippman called a "hodgepodge" of mechanisms, including aid from the general fund, member item appropriations by individual lawmakers, local aid, foundation grants and grants from the Interest on Lawyers Accounts (IOLA). Due to plunging interest rates because of the poor economy, IOLA revenues have dropped to $7 million this year from $32 million in 2008, and the other sources of aid have not made up the difference.

IOLA chairman Benito Romano estimated yesterday that the fund will probably take in about $7 million in 2011 as well.

"Right now [legal services funding] is hit and miss," Judge Lippman told about 100 people gathered yesterday for the hearing in the First Department courtroom. "It's just catch as catch can. What the IOLA crash has shown us is we can't continue."

Service providers say a last-minute infusion of $15 million in state funding made up some of the short-fall in funding. The governor and Legislature funneled the money into the system from additional revenues generated by an increase in the cost of taking the bar examination, for filing a foreclosure action, for running a background criminal check and other fee increases.

The increased revenues were a one-time addition into the system, however, and those funds were not dedicated for civil legal services in future budgets.

The president of the Rent Stabilization Association, Joseph Strasburg, one of several business representatives, told the hearing that representation by counsel for tenants benefits landlords as well because lawyers can work out late rent payment schedules and also arrange for low-income dwellers to receive federal housing aid.

Citigroup general counsel Michael S. Helfer spoke of how mandatory mediation conferences in foreclosure proceedings often have to be postponed three or four times because unrepresented homeowners do not bring the proper paperwork.

Samuel W. Seymour, president of the New York City Bar, said one project by his group involves giving legal aid to immigrants seeking asylum. Applicants represented by counsel won asylum 39 percent of the time while petitioners who did not have counsel were granted asylum 14 percent of the time.

"It is demonstrable that the assistance of counsel makes a difference," Mr. Seymour said.

The hearing also heard from six clients of legal services providers. They included Yulia Abayeva, a native of Uzbekistan, who broke away from an abusive husband and began to receive child support with the help of the New York Legal Assistance Group, and Lars Anderson, a Nebraska transplant to New York City, who avoided eviction thanks in part to MFY Legal Services.

"To navigate the legal system is not so easy," Judge Lippman said.

Participation in the hearing yesterday was by invitation only. The chief judge said the same format will be followed at the other hearings: today at the Fourth Department in Rochester, Oct. 5 at the Court of Appeals in Albany and Oct. 7 at the Second Department in Brooklyn.

"Every aspect of our society gains from having civil legal services funded," the chief judge said after yesterday's hearing. "The business community, the health community, the real estate industry—every possible component of our society benefits by having people have lawyers when dealing with the fundamentals of life… That's what this is about, a parallel to Gideon that says that it is equally obvious when you're dealing with life's essential that people must have a lawyer or our whole system breaks down."Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, chairwoman of the Assembly's judiciary committee, attended yesterday's hearing. She said she hopes the data generated by the hearings and a task force appointed by the courts will give lawmakers an idea of how much adequate legal services would cost.

"The benefit of this, the court holding the hearing, is that it is a neutral party that sees people represented and unrepresented and can evaluate the arguments and present a case without it being biased," she said.