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Open House Spotlights Lack Of Funding For Civil Legal Services

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

  • By: Jill Miller
  • Organization: VLSP

In an effort to call attention to the severe lack of funding for civil legal services and the poor throughout New York State, the Monroe County Bar Association in conjunction with Volunteer Legal Services Project, the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester, Greater Upstate Law Project, Monroe County Legal Assistance Corp., The Legal Aid Society of Rochester and the Farmworker Legal Services of New York hosted an open house on Thursday, March 25.

Monroe County Family Court Judge Joan Kohout opened the program by explaining the valuable services civil legal services providers offer to the community.

"Civil legal services providers often solve important problems many indigent people face," Judge Kohout explained. "They often face basic needs such as access to medical care or home foreclosure or eviction. Civil legal services providers can transform a person's life."

This statement holds true for Jane Gabriel. Gabriel, a State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law graduate who volunteers at PILOR, shared the story of her first contact with civil legal services. This experience changed her life.

Fresh out of college, Gabriel and her family lived in a mobile home park due to financial circumstances. The living conditions were dreadful. With no plans for improvement, Gabriel and the residents turned to MCLAC for assistance.

"We lived in horrendous conditions and some of the residents heard about MCLAC and we decided to take our case to them," she explained. "When you are poor you are perceived as less intelligent, but that was never the case with MCLAC and its attorneys. We sued the owners of the park and won."

The experience had such a profound effect on Gabriel that she began volunteering at MCLAC. Recognizing her potential, the staff encouraged Gabriel to attend law school and she did just that.

"MCLAC made me feel like I was better than my circumstances suggested," Gabriel shared.

Gabriel went on to stress the important role civil legal services providers play in the community.

"Inadequate funding causes us to turn away clients each week. These are cases we could win," she said. "I often wonder what would have become of me if I had been turned away and didn't receive the services I so desperately needed."

Awards Ceremony

The open house included an awards presentation ceremony during which the MCBA and VLSP's Campaign for Justice were honored with the Friends of Civil Legal Services Award.

"It's hard for me to put into words just how important the Campaign for Justice is for civil legal services," Judge Kohout said. "Last year over 90 volunteer attorneys, the heart of the campaign, raised $217,000 to support civil legal services. And every year, more volunteers come forward."

Campaign for Justice Co-chair Gary Van Graafeiland accepted the award on behalf of VLSP and thanked everyone who contributed to and volunteered for the campaign.

The Campaign for Justice is the brain child of the late Hanna Cohn. Cohn served as the executive director of VLSP and launched the campaign in an effort to raise funds for VLSP, the Legal Aid Society and MCLAC.

The MCBA was also recognized for its support of civil legal services. Rochester City Court Judge Roy King presented the award, noting that the MCBA has played a key role in helping to establish some of the civil legal services providers.

"Many of the civil litigants that appear in my court don't have representation," Judge King shared. "I see first hand the tremendous difference representation makes. The MCBA has long recognized this and works tirelessly to ensure the needs of civil legal services are met."

MCBA President June Castellano accepted the award on behalf of the association and noted that each year funding for civil legal services decreases as the demand for services increases.

"It is unbelievable to me to see that each year funding goes down yet the demand for services keeps rising," Castellano said. "I look at other states and see that they are doing a better job of funding. Our own state needs to do more to make justice a reality for all."

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