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New York's Programs to Assist Pro Bono Litigants

Thursday, February 21, 2019

New York's Programs to Assist Pro Bono Litigants

"All across the country, bar associations and legal nonprofits are working to close the representation gap. Doing this on a small scale is not easy, but expanding it to an entire state brings new challenges. New York’s efforts provide one example of how to knit together a network of organizations to increase access to justice.

For litigants in the Big Apple who need a lawyer but cannot afford one, local bar associations and legal nonprofits have stepped up to connect members to those in need. The assistance can range from free legal advice to full-on representation. There is a dizzying array of organizations putting litigants and attorneys in touch with each other, including

  • City Bar Justice Center,
  • New York State Bar Association’s Department of Pro Bono Services,
  • New York State Courts Access to Justice Program,
  • New York County Lawyers Association,
  • New York Legal Assistance Group,
  • The Legal Aid Society, and
  • New York City Pro Bono Center,

to name only a few, to say nothing of the ABA-sponsored support for pro bono litigants. All these programs helped to narrow the representation gap in regard to low-income litigants.

Many litigants were helped in New York City due in part to their proximity to the various programs. New York City residents began to be represented more and more in, for example, eviction proceedings. When the NYC Access-to-Counsel bill was passed, requiring appointment of counsel to low-income people in such proceedings, the gap would narrow even more.

However, New York’s courts questioned how to expand this model to the rest of a state where a litigant could be 45 minutes away (assuming he or she had access to transportation) from the nearest attorney, or an hour away from a pro bono organization, as might be the case in places such as the Adirondacks. The need was particularly felt in the state’s rural areas, where barriers to access to justice could be both affordability of services and availability of counsel, either pro bono or paid.

When the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice (previously known as the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services) began in 2010, there was a belief that the number of unrepresented people in that post–financial crisis era was a crisis in itself, as basics like shelter were at stake. Over time, services expanded to meet other pressing needs, like aid to victims of domestic violence or representation in the immigration courts..."

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