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

Friday, September 30, 2011

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.


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Comments [2]

glen mero from troy ny 12182

hello every one. my name is glen.. and yes . I agree there needs to be more availability to legal councel to poor.(like myself.. now)people in ny state. to keep this brief and this is just my opinion. I have been trying to get legal help to protect my own civil rights and in my eyes my childrens rights too. for the past 5 years.. I have documentented almost every thing I am about to say .. but (in my opinion) because of the laws and it has in the past always been the men doing the abuse that it is also changing where the woman are becoming the abusers and getting help from different agencies to make it where they control what a man can and can't do and that to be fair needs to be thought about when considering the domestic violence laws .I have been accused and arrested for domestic violence . breaking order of protections ,dragged through a lot.. (all documented) you would not believe my story I could not of made this up if I tried.. but because I am a man who use to make 46,000 a year put our children first. and they are still on the honor roll I have lost house (illeaglly foreclosed on after citi bank raised value from 58,000 to 138,000 but I can't afford lawyer)been brought to trail in family court day of trail she (wife drops charges behind closed door meetings that how system works)but ny state picks them up because it's a fellony court appt lawyer for me wont even look at my evidence and pushes on me to take the deal they are offering said no went to trail and won (or so I thought)all order of protections where dismissed but wife (who has spent time in mental ward of hospital does not mean she is bad person)nows the system and wellfare is footing her bill you would not believe the amount of money they will spend foolishly with out investagating am now going through it again (next court date 9/7/2012 I can't find a lawyer that will help me I have no money (always paid my child support)until now they stopped my unemployment 3 weeks ago I worked for 20 something years but company closed went out of state 2 years ago cant find new job with this stuff still on my record even though it should not be there .. I would like to just find a lawyer to view what I have documented not he said she said stuff but actual documents that are from and in family court and to this day every where I turn am denied someone please help... tell me where to find trust worthy counsil that will seek the truth. there are in my opinion 3 sides to every story his side / her side and the truth...I have had judge give me emergency costudy and then another judge give it to her and wants me to pay to see my kids under supervised visits .. question how can two different judges have two different out comes is there two sets of laws...?

Aug. 21 2012 01:30 PM

Access to legal services is vitally important to the function of democracy and for the health of the legal system as a whole. If poor people cannot afford as most can't and cannot get adequate legal services for whatever problems they are having then what may happen is a two tier system for the haves and have nots will develop and that can lead society down a road it would be hard to come back from.

Feb. 27 2012 03:35 PM

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