Lippman to Resume His Push for Expanded Legal Services

  • 9/19/2011
  • Source: National > IBA International Pro Bono

Lippman to Resume His Push for Expanded Legal Services
ALBANY - With grim economic realities persisting in New York, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman will renew his efforts beginning next week to drive home to the governor and the Legislature the need for greater state funding for civil legal services for the poor.

The chief judge will preside over the first of four planned hearings Tuesday in White Plains along with Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau, New York State Bar President Vincent E. Doyle III of Connors & Villardo in Buffalo and A. Gail Prudenti, presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department. Presiding justices of the other three departments will appear at later hearings in Manhattan, Albany and Buffalo.

The hearings are a response to a 2010 legislative resolution requesting an annual update from the courts about the state of civil legal services. As in last year's sessions, speakers will argue that many lower-income New Yorkers need legal help to maintain such essentials as housing, health care, unemployment insurance and even an adequate diet (NYLJ, Sept. 29, 2010). Testimony is by invitation of the court system only.

"We are certainly aware of what is going on in this economy," Judge Lippman said in an interview. "The economic climate is the worst that it has been, perhaps since the Great Depression. But it is above all the time that civil legal services have to be funded by the state."

Helaine M. Barnett, the chairwoman of a task force appointed by Judge Lippman to evaluate civil legal services, said there has been "absolutely" no decline in the need for those services. If anything, the need has increased in the last year, she said.

"There just are no jobs," she said. In fact, there are concerns that sources of federal and private funding for civil legal services will continue to dry up, she said.

Ms. Barnett is the former head of the civil division in the New York Legal Aid Society and retired president of the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C.

Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society in New York, said that far from seeing a fall in the demand for legal assistance since the first round of hearings last fall, there has been a surge in the number of needy clients.

"The courthouses are full of unrepresented litigants, which has an impact on the courts and on the represented parties and on the government," Mr. Banks said. "Government all too often has to pay the costs of problems that could have been solved with legal assistance at a much earlier and easier point, such as government not having to pay the cost of emergency shelter for people getting evicted from their homes."

Mr. Banks estimated that only about one of nine people who seek aid from his organization can be helped.

Judge Lippman said the presentations before the commission again will focus on the cost to society and to the economy of inadequate funding, including more people losing their homes or seeking welfare benefits.

"What we tried to do last year was not necessarily to have the same people [civil legal services providers] come on and say how much they needed more funding, but we also wanted to have people from the community make it clearer that everyone recognizes this is not just the moral and right thing to do, but that it's in the best interests of everybody, not just those who will get the representation," Judge Lippman said.

Barbara Finkelstein, the executive director of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, said attorney David Boies, managing partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, will appear in White Plains to discuss the costs of unrepresented clients in his capacity as co-chairman of the American Bar Association's Task Force on the Preservation of the Legal System.

"We are really trying to emphasize how important we are to the economy, how important we are to the local governments and how important we are to the court system," said Ms. Finkelstein.

Ms. Barnett's task force recommended the appropriation of an additional $25 million for each of the four fiscal years beginning in 2011-12, growing to $100 million more a year earmarked for civil legal service providers beginning in fiscal 2014-15.

In part, the funding shortfalls have been created by a plunge in funds generated by the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund. Lawyers remit interest earned in those accounts, which hold client escrow.

With the economy struggling, and interest on the accounts running at 1 percent or less, the amount produced by the fund has fallen in the past four years to about $8 million from $32 million.

Judge Lippman authorized a $15 million appropriation in the current state fiscal year to bolster IOLA. In addition, the Judiciary's budget in 2011-12 included $12.5 million for other civil legal services funding.

But the $12.5 million was only half what the task force recommended and half what the courts originally proposed. Thus, Judge Lippman will use the hearings to make a case for getting his program back on track.