Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann conducted the first in a series of public hearings on the unmet civil legal needs of low-income New Yorkers last Tuesday in the Third Judicial Department. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli served as one of six panels to provide testimony on the gap in civil legal services for the needy. Lippmann will report to the Legislature and make recommendations on the funding needed.
September 23, 2013The first in a series of public hearings to be held on meeting the legal needs of low-income New Yorkers took place last Tuesday in the Third Judicial Department.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann — along with Presiding Justice Karen Peters, Third Department; Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti; and New York State Bar Association President David Schraver — heard testimony from six panels for the purpose of assessing the resources needed to close the justice gap.
The witness list included an Albany Law School panel; a business panel; a judge's panel; a veterans' services panel; a clinical panel; and testimony from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
"The reality is that a vast number of low-income New Yorkers cannot afford a lawyer and without a lawyer, they cannot adequately navigate legal problems involving some very fundamental needs we often take for granted — including housing, family stability and personal safety in domestic relations, access to health care or education, or subsistence income and benefits," DiNapoli said.
"Who are the people who need lawyers? They are our neighbors. They are victims of natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, who are trying to rebuild their homes," DiNapoli continued. "They are veterans, many of whom are disabled, returning to us from honorable service in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to rebuild their lives. They're workers in urban, suburban and rural communities, many of whom earn not much more than minimum wage, and need lawyers just as much as anyone else."
Both Lippmann and DiNapoli agree that closing the justice gap in New York is a dollar and cents issue. Lippmann noted that people who cannot afford representation in cases regarding life's essentials are less likely to contribute to growing local economies.
DiNapoli said the gap in civil legal services also places a huge burden on the courts and clogs the judicial system. For example, DiNapoli said the lack of representation for 2.3 million litigants in 2010 slowed down judicial proceedings for all litigants, including businesses that suffer economic losses for each day that their legal disputes are not addressed.
He said providing civil legal services can help prevent the downstream societal and financial impacts stemming from problems such as domestic violence and homelessness.
"Representation in domestic violence matters can cut down on costs associated with lost work days, hospitalization, treatment by physicians, emergency room visits, ambulance and paramedic services, physical therapy, and mental health treatment," DiNapoli said.
The state comptroller also said representation in foreclosure proceedings ensures that low-income homeowners have a fair chance at retaining their homes which in turn contributes to stabilizing a "still-troubled" housing market.
"The evidence of the monetary return to the state of investment in legal services is plentiful. The United States Department of Commerce estimates that every dollar brought into the New York economy generates a multiplier effect of $1.48. Civil Legal Services help generate badly-needed SSI and other benefits," DiNapoli said.
"When these dollars come into the state low-income families and individuals use the money to purchase necessities like food, rent and clothing," he said.
DiNapoli said benefits received in 2011 yielded an overall positive impact on the state economy of $561 million and that studies performed on behalf of civil legal services providers in Massachusetts, Maryland, and a number of other states, conclude that such services generate substantial increases in federal revenue.
"So since this is clearly a national phenomenon, one might reasonably ask 'what is the federal government doing to expand access to these services'? The answer is, not what we would hope for," DiNapoli said.
According to DiNapoli, the Legal Services Corporation is the single largest funder for civil legal services and operates as an independent nonprofit corporation that provides grants for high quality civil legal systems for low-income Americans.
He said the corporation distributes more than 90 percent of its total funding to134 independent, non-profit legal aid programs with more than 800 offices, but unfortunately, their grants now pay for less than 27 percent of New York's nonprofit legal aid programs.
DiNapoli noted that in fiscal year 2011 Congress gave the corporation $378.6 million for basic field grants, which decreased to $322 million by 2012, and to $316 million in 2013, with the U.S. Senate proposing a $400 million increase for fiscal 2014 and the House of Representatives proposing a decrease to $272 million.
The traditional primary source of funding for civil legal services has been the Interest on the Lawyer Account Fund according to DiNapoli's testimony. However, planned expenditures from the IOLA fund this year are only $7 million compared to $34 million in a few years ago.
"Chief Judge Lippman has come to the rescue year after year — this year targeting $40 million in Judiciary Budget appropriations for support of Civil Legal Services and an additional $15 million for IOLA, for a total of $55 million," DiNapoli said.
The Dean and President of Albany Law School, Penelope Andrews, spoke on behalf of the critical role law institutions play in providing equal access to the justice system through volunteerism.
"I think that we all agree that law schools, as significant institutions in our society, have a responsibility to fill the sense of services and commitment," Andrews said at the hearing.
She noted that even before Lippmann announced all students must perform 50 hours of pro bono service to be admitted to the New York Bar, Albany Law School had a "vibrant, student run, faculty supported" pro bono program.
Andrews said the clinical programs offered at Albany Law School are central to law students' training, and every year, one-third of its students assist hundreds of individuals and families who might not otherwise have legal presentation, and she is committed to increasing the number of students who are involved in representing individuals and families.
Some of the clinics run by the Albany Law School mentioned were the Civil Rights and Disabilities Law Clinic, the Family Violence Litigation Clinic and Immigration Project, the Tax and Transactional Law Clinic, and the Health Law Clinic.
"In addition to providing this vital service, Albany law students are learning to practice law with compassion and sensitivity to the needs of their clients. In this way, they are able to represent people who are often economically and socially marginalized," Andrews said.