Civil Legal Services Lack Funding To ‘Provide Justice For All’

  • 4/7/2004
  • Nora Jones
  • VLSP
  • Source: New York > Rochester / Finger Lakes

While the demand for civil legal services continues to rise, sources of funding for local agencies dedicated to meeting those needs continues to dwindle.

Referring specifically to Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming Counties, Robert Elardo, executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project in Buffalo, reviewed three graphs to give true perspective to the significant under-funding that prevents equal access to justice for many who live in Western New York.

"For every client that Volunteer Lawyers Project is able to schedule for an appointment, two others can only receive information and referral services due to scarce resources," explained Elardo. "But despite diminished funding, the organizations that collectively help low income and disabled clients, squeeze every dime out of what funding there is. They served over 12,000 people in 2003."

The organizations he references are Neighborhood Legal Services, Inc., Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Legal Services for Elderly, Disabled and Disadvantaged, and the Bar Association of Erie County's VLP program.

One graph showed how various sources of funding contributed approximately $57 million across New York State in 1992, and that same pool of funding only contributed $34.2 million in 2003.

"Based on the 1992 level of funding and adjusting for inflation, we really need more than $74 million to just maintain the level of service we were providing in 1992," stated Elardo. "In the Buffalo area, although funding is down 40 percent in recent years, the number of clients receiving service only dropped by 10 percent."

The primary funding sources tracked in these statistics are the IOLA funds (interest on lawyers accounts - which has been severely impacted by low interest rates), federal funding from Legal Services Corp., and state funding (which is down 35 percent compared to fiscal year 2000).

The March 25 forum for this discussion was a gathering at the Erie County Hall, as part of a statewide effort to emphasize the need for the state to provide a permanent funding source for civil legal services. In conjunction with the "equal justice" event, two local attorneys were recognized with awards from the New York State Office of Court Administration for their many years of dedication to state and local efforts to provide access to justice.

Paul Hassett of Brown & Kelly and Sue Gardner of Kavinoky & Cook were each presented with plaques for their outstanding dedication to helping fund civil legal services programs.

New York State Bar Association President A. Thomas Levin presented the award to Hassett, whom he has known for many years.

"A Canisus College graduate who earned his law degree at Georgetown, Hassett has been with the firm of Brown & Kelly since 1968," noted Levin. "He served as president of the Bar Association of Erie County and the NYSBA," continued Levin, noting Hassett's involvement in numerous other organizations at the local, state and national levels.

New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department Presiding Justice Eugene Pigott, Jr. introduced Gardner prior to presenting her plaque. In addition to her leadership at the state level on the IOLA Board, Judge Pigott shared that Gardner has headed the University at Buffalo funding efforts, served as chair of the Buffalo area Red Cross, championed numerous initiatives and "been a friend to civil legal services" for many years.

To add perspective to the local need funding of civil legal services, Elardo noted that "if you filled Ralph Wilson Stadium, that would represent about how many Western New Yorkers need legal help; if you imagine the HSBC arena about two-thirds full - that's how many people are actually served each year."

Other statistics shared by the speakers included figures comparing the availability of civil legal services funding in other states. For example, in New Jersey, the state has about $17 per poor person allocated to civil legal services. According to the American Bar Association study, New York has less than $2.50 per poor person for civil legal services, compared to Massachusetts at $14, Maryland at approximately $8 and Michigan at $6.

"In 1988, civil legal funding was a last minute budget add on, and a line item veto by the governor eliminated it from the state's budget," noted Elardo. "We made a priority of health care funding. Civil legal service funding should not be subject to the political whimsey of the moment."