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New York State civil courts rank 22nd in access for poor

New York’s civil courts rank 22nd in a survey of how well 50 states, the nation’s capital and Puerto Rico provide access to poor people, said a Manhattan-based center devoted to helping people obtain justice in the legal system.

The District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Maryland and Connecticut occupied the top five slots in the Justice Index, which was released early Wednesday by the National Center for Access to Justice, at Cardozo Law School. Mississippi came in last.

The report evaluates how well poor people fare in four areas of the civil court systems in the 52 jurisdictions. They include access to attorneys, resources for self-representation, access for people whose native tongue is not English and for those who have mental disabilities.

An indigent litigant was defined for the purpose of the study as someone earning up to 200 percent above the federal poverty line.

New York scored 39.09 of a possible 100 points in the overall-access category comprising the four areas of study, 26.53 in the area of attorney access, 56.25 on resources for pro se litigants, 50 in access for the disabled and only 23.6 for language access.

A spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration, declined to comment, saying officials had not seen the report.

David Udell, executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice and a visiting professor at the law school, said the civil courts handle just over 20 million new filings each year while the criminal court system handles slightly fewer.

The report paints a collage of judicial profiles: some states are doing better than others at meeting the needs of their poorer users.

“The Justice Index is a response to a crisis in our civil justice system,” he said. “Many people are more familiar with the criminal justice system and the problem of mass incarceration but not everyone realizes that in our civil justice system people can lose their home in foreclosure, their apartment in eviction proceedings, their child in a neglect proceeding or even a permanent termination of their parental rights.”

He added: “The index relies on data and data analytics to present a picture of the ways in which state justice systems are trying to respond to the crisis often called the “justice gap” in which so many millions of people are facing civil legal matters of with very high stakes but without the assistance of lawyers.”

The report said that up to 110 million people nationwide qualify for free legal assistance. But the civil court systems have designated 6,953 civil Legal Aid attorneys, an amount that breaks down to .64 civil Legal Aid attorneys per 10,000 poor people. By contrast, the study said, there are as many as 40 attorneys per 10,000 people in the general population.

“The result is that millions of Americans who need legal assistance are unable to obtain it,” said the authors of the report, in a press release.

New York ranked second only to Washington in the area of attorney access, the study showed, reporting that there were nearly 88 civil attorneys for every 10,000 people in the state. It was 16th in the area of support for self-represented litigants, 39th in language access and 37th in the area of disability access.

“The Justice Index 2016 reveals startling gaps,” said Udell. “Our country has an average of fewer than .64 civil legal aid attorneys per 10,000 poor people; half the states don’t yet require certified interpreters; only 12 states require court staff to tell Americans that court filing fees can be waived if you are poor. There are many more problems, equally conspicuous in the Justice Index’s findings. And, yet, the underlying story of the Justice Index 2016 is one of progress: nothing replaces the role of a lawyer, but with the judiciary’s leadership, dozens of states are pursuing common-sense reforms to help poor Americans in civil cases.”

The top five

  • District of Columbia
  • Massachusetts
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • Connecticut
  • SOURCE: National Center for Access to Justice

    State & Region