Fate of $15 mil. for civil legal services in lawmakers' hands
February 01, 2010
|Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, right, seen here before his swearing in as chief judge with Gov. David A. Paterson, said the governor’s budget would hurt New Yorkers who need affordable legal help. |
It is now up to the Legislature to decide whether the state will provide a fiscal crutch for a diminishing fund that helps New Yorkers pay for civil legal services they might otherwise be unable to afford.
Included in Gov. David A. Paterson's 2010-2011 Executive Budget is $15 million the state judiciary requested for civil legal services. That money, if included in a final budget, would go help offset what New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman described as a "precipitous shortfall" in the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund.
Though the governor is not constitutionally empowered to adjust the judiciary's budget request, Paterson has asked Lippman to decrease it by $132 million and cited the $15 million as among those spending proposals that would result in increased costs.
"As I noted in recent legislative hearings on this subject, no issue is more fundamental to the court system's mission than ensuring equal justice for all," said Lippman in his response to the governor's request for cuts. He said by keeping the $15 million in the budget, the state "will help our most vulnerable citizens in their time of greatest need."
The joint public hearing of the Senate and Assembly's Judiciary committees on IOLA was conducted Jan. 7. The hearing gave those testifying an opportunity to raise lawmakers' awareness of the mounting financial problems facing civil legal services in New York.
The IOLA Fund provides legal aid services with financial support. The funding comes from lawyers depositing money into IOLA accounts and allowing the money to gain interest. The interest gained is then used as part of the IOLA fund and is distributed to civil legal service providers.
Due to the economic downturn, interest rates have plummeted and have resulted in a lack of funding for IOLA and the legal service programs it supports. In 2008, IOLA had $32 million and was able to provide funds for 71 programs. In 2009, IOLA had less than $8 million to provide, a 75 percent decline.
It is estimated that in 2010 the IOLA fund will have only $6.5 million to distribute. This, according to those seeking state support for the fund, means that many seeking legal aid will have to be turned away and would not be properly represented in court.
During the hearing, lawmakers heard the story of Amy Luebbers, a caretaker who was a victim of domestic abuse. For 11 years Luebbers endured physical and verbal abuse. Her husband only allowed her to have $60 a week to provide for herself and her children. When her husband filed for divorce in 2007 she did not know her legal rights and was not able to afford a lawyer. A friend referred Luebbers to the Legal Aid Society, and she was able to have an attorney represent her during the divorce.
"Without The Legal Aid Society I think I'd definitely be in a bad place. … I would have lost my home and everything else," Luebbers said. "[My husband] was very controlling and with the help of legal aid services I was able to gain independence and provide a healthy environment [for my children]."
"The current economic downturn created a perfect storm for IOLA," said Lippman at the hearing. He said the $15 million was simply a down payment to a much greater commitment: "We must permanently commit to provide legal representatives to all New Yorkers."
"It's definitely cyclical," said Lillian Moy, executive director for The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. What is cyclical is that when the economy takes a turn for the worse then the IOLA fund has less money to provide to civil legal services. What is also cyclical is that when the economy takes a turn for the worse New Yorkers who are unable to afford lawyers need them more than ever.
"The legal aid services' availability to respond diminishes as those who need representation increases," she said.
In March 2008 Chris Layo, 25, learned his personal care assistant would no longer be able to provide transportation. Administrators of a program that allows people with disabilities to live in their own home with personal care told Layo they determined they could no longer transport him to run errands or take him to social engagements.
Layo turned to legal aid services to help him fight the decision. "If I didn't have [transportation] I would be trapped in my own home," Layo said. In December 2008 Layo's lawyer helped him overturn the decision. "They gave me emotional support. They were very positive and they kept me going," he said.
Anne Erickson, president and CEO of the Empire Justice Center, said she knows people forced to represent themselves have little chance of success. "Some projects do clinics," she said. "But that is not the answer. … New York has failed to provide stable and ongoing support in delivering legal services."
Erickson said Lippman's speaking out for civil legal services could lead to a permanent funding stream for them being included in the state budget. Lippman's actions are unprecedented and only bring more attention to the cause of equal justice, she said.
Many of those who testified before lawmakers spoke of the need to have permanent funding for civil legal services.