Letter From The President Of The New York City Bar Association

2010-11-02 00:00

To The Readers of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

I was proud to represent the City Bar and the City Bar Justice Center by testifying at Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's first Hearing on civil legal services at the First Department.

The Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York is meant to serve as the centerpiece of Chief Judge Lippman's efforts to establish a comprehensive approach to providing counsel to low-income New Yorkers in civil cases. The Task Force's broad-based mission will include identifying permanent civil legal service funding streams, improving delivery of those services and guiding the courts'ongoing efforts to remove barriers to justice for all New Yorkers. As Chief Judge Lippman said, "No issue is more fundamental to the courts' constitutional mission than ensuring equal justice for all. The availability of affordable legal representation for low-income New Yorkers is indispensable to our ability to carry out that mission."

Testimony at the hearing underscored how the Great Recession has taken its toll on civil legal services funding: revenues in the Interest on Lawyers Accounts (IOLA), an important source of funding for legal services, are down to $7 million from $32 million in 2008.

In my testimony, I highlighted the work of our City Bar Justice Center - the City Bar's public service affiliate - pointing out that calls to its hotline relating to consumer debt have increased 40 percent in the past few years, and that its bankruptcy, foreclosure and immigration projects have all the work they can handle. The City Bar Justice Center's mission is to leverage the resources of the City's legal community to increase access to justice for low-income individuals. The Justice Center accomplishes this by using a small staff to carefully match pro bono lawyers with clients, train them and supervise their work. We estimate that for every $1 it spends, the Justice Center is able to deliver up to $9 in value of legal services.

The Justice Center assists more than 20,000 clients a year. We assist immigrants who have been victims of violence or a crime and also conduct outreach to immigrant communities regarding their rights and options. We assist homeless individuals and families seeking benefits, cancer survivors who have insurance and employment issues, elderly New Yorkers who seek wills and living wills, microentrepreneurs seeking all types of basic legal help, and veterans seeking disability benefits. We also provide assistance to persons filing for bankruptcy and those seeking to defend against or prevent foreclosure. In addition, we operate a legal hotline that assists thousands of low-income callers on a wide range of issues every year.

In my testimony, I also had the significant opportunity to report on the very pressing legal needs of the City's immigrant population. Approximately 3 million New York City residents are foreign born. Most of these immigrants are involved in the City's economy, but often in jobs that do not meet even basic income needs. Some are dependent on the City's heavily tested safety net of benefits and services. These individuals have the same legal needs as the rest of the population in areas such as housing, family law, consumer problems, education and government assistance. And like other low-income New Yorkers, there are simply not enough lawyers to provide those services.

However, immigrants face further hurdles in accessing legal services. Our laws and rules are unfamiliar to them, and they lack a basic understanding of how to proceed within our legal system. Many come from cultures where seeking legal help is discouraged or where the delay in seeking such help leads to a compounding of their problems. Many immigrants lack the language skills to understand what their legal situation is or explain what they need. All this makes them particularly vulnerable to notarios and others fraudulently claiming to provide legal services, and recently we were called upon by both the New York County District Attorney and the New York State Attorney General to assist immigrant victims of such scams. We are therefore particularly sensitive to the importance of providing representation to all immigrants who cannot afford lawyers to assert their basic claims and defenses.

The need for civil legal services among those who cannot afford counsel far exceeds our ability to serve them. As the Chief Judge noted at the hearing, civil litigation often raises issues of basic human needs, where the assistance of a lawyer means the difference between losing or protecting a litigant's shelter, entitlements, safety, or job. Why should those rights be vindicated with the help of a lawyer for the wealthy while those in need must proceed alone? Eliminating that disparity is a social and political challenge, and it falls to our profession to lead the way. I am proud of the City Bar's continuing leadership in this area.


Samuel W. Seymour