For More and More Low-Income New Yorkers, Civil Legal Services Are Just Out of Reach

A month after giving birth to their son, Natalie Jones said her husband was abusive and threw her out of their Manhattan apartment. By the time she managed to return home, she said, her husband had left the state with their son.

“I had no money to hire a lawyer, and I didn’t know what to do,” Jones testified in New York State Supreme Court about the 2008 incident on Monday. “On top of that, my husband had taken all of my documents.”

With the help of a lawyer from Legal Service NYC, one of the largest legal aid programs in the nation, Jones managed to get custody of her son, a five-year order of protection against her husband, child support and replace her documents.

Jones was among the clients of civil legal organizations, business leaders, judges and local government officials to testify this week in a hearing held by State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to identify low-income New Yorkers’ needs for civil legal services, so they can be submitted within the judiciary budget.

“I think we have a crisis in civil legal services in this state and in this country,” he said. “And in this terrible economy it’s needed more than ever.”

As poverty levels jump, an increased need for legal service

With the impact of the economic crisis and one in five New Yorkers now living in poverty, the need for civil legal services will increase.

At the same time, a critical source of funding – the Interest on lawyers Account Fund of New York State – decreased from $32 million to $8 million in 2009. Federal, state and local funding has also shrunk.

This month, the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate have approved fiscal year 2012 funding bills, which cut funding by 2 percent to $396 million for Legal Service Corporation, a nonprofit which provides grants to local nonprofit civil legal aid programs across the nation.

“Most of these cuts were not easy,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers said of the bill. “But they were certainly not made carelessly.”

LSC provides grants to seven nonprofit legal aid programs in New York State, including Legal Services NYC, which worked with Jones. Loss of $800,000 in funding from LSC expected in 2012, coupled with losses from other sources, could require the organization to lay off of as many as 45 staff members, according to its executive director, Raun Rasmussen.

Already each year more than 2.3 million of the city’s poor residents navigate the state’s justice system without legal assistance. According to the findings of Lippman’s task force last year, 97 to 99 percent of the city’s residents are unrepresented in child support matters, consumer credit cases and eviction cases.

A cost benefit analysis

Last year, following the Judge’s hearings, $27.5 million for civil legal services was included in the judiciary budget.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn,  who also testified on Monday, said that Council funding for programs ranging from general civil legal representation to anti-eviction cases to benefit advocacy has fallen from $12.7 million in 2008 to less than half that level in the current fiscal year.

“It was already a Herculean task to keep it at that level,” Quinn said.

Lippman pointed out in the hearings that providing civil legal service is not just a way to level the playing field, but also something that makes sense in terms of a cost-benefit analysis.

For every dollar spent on civil legal services, $5 come back to the state, according to the last year’s findings of his task force. That occurs, he said, because of increased federal dollars that flow to the state through programs New Yorkers are entitled to, as well as reduced costs of social services, incarceration and homelessness.

The hearing in Manhattan on Monday was the second of four planned across the state. The first was in White Plains, and two others will take place in Albany on October 3 and in Buffalo on October.