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OpinionOpEd

OPINION: Needy deserve legal counsel in noncriminal cases

Stephen P. Younger is president of the New York State Bar Association.

The stinging effect of the fiscal crisis is being felt by thousands across our state. With their lives and livelihoods literally at stake, too many New Yorkers find themselves in court and unable to afford lawyers to handle civil cases dealing with their basic human rights. The opposing side - often a government agency, business or landlord - is generally well represented by counsel.

Studies have shown that no more than 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income New Yorkers are being met. This is simply unacceptable. It runs counter to our basic concept of fairness to deprive families of shelter, their child or much-needed government benefits without the aid of a lawyer. That's why New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is leading a critical effort to explore this problem and seek out workable solutions.

Currently, the state provides funding for programs that supply free lawyers to low-income New Yorkers. But the funding levels are woefully low, amounting to only $3.68 per indigent person, compared with an average of $23.51 in neighboring states.

One of the most critical sources of money for civil legal services is the New York Interest on Lawyer Account (IOLA) fund, established by the State Legislature in 1983, which generates its revenue from interest on accounts held by lawyers on behalf of their clients. In the current fiscal year - apart from a one-time emergency appropriation of $15 million to IOLA - direct state funding for legal services to the poor is less than $6 million. This, at a time when IOLA is projected to plunge from $25 million in 2009 to $6 million in 2011.

The Bar Association has long advocated for New York State to create a permanent Access to Justice Fund with $50 million in annual appropriations. While it may be counterintuitive, scrimping on civil legal services for the poor is not only morally unjust, it is fiscally irresponsible.

A report by the New York City Department of Social Services concluded that every dollar spent on indigent representation in eviction proceedings saves $4 in costs related to homelessness. Similarly, providing adequate legal representation for the indigent helps ensure that they receive entitlements like unemployment and Social Security benefits, and perhaps keeps them out of other government assistance programs.

While the fiscal implications are compelling, it is justice that ultimately matters most. Today, nearly five decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person charged with a crime has the right to a lawyer, the majority of needy New Yorkers lack the same legal protections when they find themselves in court on civil matters, fighting for basic human needs like housing, health care, protection against an abusive spouse or child custody.

New York State Bar Association members are committed to doing our share by donating record amounts of free legal counseling to low-income families in need. For example, in 2006, 466 state bar members performed at least 50 hours of free legal work. By 2009, that number more than tripled, to approximately 1,500 state bar members, representing a total of 250,000 hours of free legal work. While we expect that number to increase again this year, it's not nearly enough to meet the growing need as the number of foreclosures rises, homelessness increases, small businesses continue to fail and more poor working families live paycheck to paycheck.

Chief Judge Lippman recognizes that we can no longer ignore this alarming and growing crisis, and the New York State Bar Association has long been committed to greater access to justice for indigent New Yorkers not only by contributions of free legal services, but by our strong advocacy for creating a permanent and adequately financed Access to Justice Fund. Creating such a fund - state-administered through one office, instead of the current patchwork scheme - is a critical step to ensure that equal justice can finally become a reality in our state.

As our newly elected leaders in Albany begin to put together their budget priorities for the next fiscal year, they must finally address this injustice and make New York, once again, a shining example for our nation.

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