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WBASNY Testimony on State of New York Hearings on Civil Legal Services

Written testimony on behalf of the
Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY)
to the
Chief Judge of the State of New York
Hearings on Civil Legal Services
Andrea F. Composto, Esq., WBASNY President

The Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (“WBASNY”), thanks you on behalf of its approximately 4,300 members for the opportunity to submit this testimony regarding access to civil legal services.  We congratulate the Chief Judge’s Task Force on becoming the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice and feel confident regarding it’s continuation of the vital mandate of the Task Force.

WBASNY’s membership is diverse and is distributed throughout the State of New York. Our members are private practitioners, law professors, public interest attorneys, and State and Federal judges and legal staff. Since our formation in 1980, the mission of our association continues to be the advancement of women in the legal profession and of women in society, and support for the equal administration of justice.

For the thousands of clients served annually by members of WBASNY, civil legal services is often the only option available for those who would otherwise never get to court, even as an unrepresented or pro se litigant. Civil legal services (CLS) provides not only avenues to representation and to alternative dispute resolution, but also provides access to services that unlock gateways to a safety net that the least able among us, many of them women and children, would never otherwise find.

A significant number of WBASNY members work in organizations where funding raised by the Chief Judge’s Task Force has helped to provide or expand civil legal services.  For example, The Legal Project is a private, not-for-profit organization that was founded by the Capital District Women’s Bar Association in 1995. It provides a variety of free and low cost legal services to the working poor, victims of domestic violence and other underserved individuals in the Capital District of New York State. The Legal Project reports that support from the Judiciary Budget has made a tremendous difference in their ability to serve their target clients in the Capital Region. The number of clients assisted since the Judiciary funding began in 2011 has increased by approximately 26%, and the civil legal services provided have broadened to include bankruptcy, foreclosure, affording housing, wills and end of life planning, immigration and veterans’ services clinics. The Project assisted 71 victims of domestic abuse in 1999, but assisted 1,013 such individuals in 2013.

Another organization, the Legal Services Funding Alliance was formed to enhance advocacy for increased civil legal services funding.  Its members are the primary providers of civil legal services in rural, urban and suburban communities of New York State. They provide a full range of civil legal services to low-income and disadvantaged people and communities throughout Upstate New York and Long Island.

In addition to the large number of WBASNY members who work for organizations that provide civil legal services, there is a much more significant number of women who provide pro bono services at these and other organizations.  Many WBASNY members volunteer for organizations providing civil legal services such as CLARO (Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office) and the Volunteer Lawyer for a Day program co-sponsored by the NY State Access to Justice Program and organizations such as the New York Legal Assistance Group.  These programs provide pro bono representation to pro se litigants throughout New York in various disciplines such as consumer debt, housing, uncontested divorce proceedings, and family court proceedings.   Just this year, with the help of the Staten Island Women’s Bar Association, an Uncontested Divorce Clinic was offered for the first time in Richmond County.  In addition to the services provided to the litigants, such volunteer programs provide beneficial training for law students, law graduates, and early-career attorneys.   Volunteer attorneys and student interns have the opportunity to represent clients in Court, negotiate with opposing counsel, and argue before a judge.  Student volunteers gain invaluable, hands-on experience in lawyering, while seasoned attorneys gain stimulating pro bono experience as they help some of New York’s most disadvantaged civil litigants obtain due process of law. The Access to Justice Program collaborates with Law Schools and partners with Bar Associations to provide these opportunities.

The increase in funding for civil legal services is not felt equally in all sectors, however. While WBASNY supports and commends the Chief Judge’s leadership and the work of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, and while we recognize the extreme effort that succeeded in obtaining so many millions for the provision of Civil Legal Services for the current Fiscal Year, members of the civil legal services provider community still reach out to us regarding the need for funding.  For example, a practitioner in Suffolk County states:

Although Nassau Suffolk Legal Services does the best they can with tenants, often there are people in the lower income brackets who do not qualify. This can be a problem when they ask for an adjournment to go find an attorney, and invariably come back saying they couldn’t find one (or couldn’t afford one), but it delays the cases significantly. If a mediator or two (or more in Hempstead) could be utilized, maybe the cases which are delayed can be sped up and wouldn’t languish in the system to the detriment of both parties.This view is seconded by another CLS provider:

Many people in and out of the court system remain unaware of mediation as an option to resolve their disputes, hence more cases proceed through an already burdened court system. Slashing the number of hours the courts are open for business has limited the number of cases we are able to mediate which in turn affects our case numbers required from our funders. We are also severely limited in our abilities to offer our services to non-English speaking clients as we do not have funding for interpreters.

A provider of civil legal services for children reports, surprisingly, that no funding is received from the Judiciary Budget.  The provider comments that:

We need more funding and to look at the needs that are not currently being met.  For example,  in the areas of youth who are re-homed or no longer with their adopted families, but not over 18 or 21, they are an invisible population that are reentering foster care, the homeless system, the prison system and there are people who are being paid to care for them who do not have to answer to anyone about why these children are no longer in their care.

Additionally, while the achievement of funding is of paramount importance, funding is, in itself, not the only issue. Policy and planning regarding the directing of funds are also important. WBASNY commends Chief Judge Lippman and the Governor for their commitment to funding for civil legal services and for creating a Permanent Commission, but we believe that the legal profession shares an equal responsibility to participate in seeing that the funding is directed so that it does the most good in the most efficient manner.

It is wonderful to see that the Court System has strengthened its staff by adding staff with experience in administering programs that might be tailored to offer broad support for strengthening the provision of civil legal services using a competitive grant application process along with support for other components such as disaster planning and preparedness.  Business institutions and State and local government entities are much more cognizant now of the need for preparedness for disasters of all types.  For the myriad non-profit organizations that provide access to civil legal services for the citizens of New York State, however, disaster planning may not be a line item on the funding application, and thus, not a fully funded concern, as it should be. It is important that disaster preparedness be a mandatory component of any state-wide plan for funding of both criminal and civil legal services in the future.

Using technology to enhance access to justice is another very important initiative. It should be noted, however, that smaller programs with less administrative and support staff, such as the afore-mentioned Legal Project created by the Capital District Women’s Bar Association, may have some unique needs to address in order to make the most effective use of alternative ways to provide service.  The Legal Project suggests that smaller programs with less infrastructure be provided technical assistance and funding to develop more internal support, which will enable them to use innovations in technology more effectively. These programs generally do not have technology personnel on staff, for example, thus managing social media or developing web-based outreach, training or services can, unfortunately, be very challenging. We believe that it is important to use the funds for technology to increase the capacity of smaller programs to develop their technology infrastructure in order to encourage innovative responses and programs across the state.  A provider states that:

At its core getting cases to more timely resolutions require people with the knowledge of the law – if being self-represented is the norm we need technology to alleviate the tremendous burden that self-representation puts on the court.  We need technology to be the cornerstone of all the improvements we do in civil legal services from information gathering, to intake, to actual case handling.

Some programs take the position that the choice is between installing technology or adding staff members. This was the conundrum voiced by Legal Services-NY in 2014.  The Executive Director felt that after Hurricane Sandy the need of Staten Islanders for legal consultation was so great that it would be a crime to devote time and attention to the purchase and installation of technological components.  Of course, however, if a grant was provided that paid for an expert to examine the work of the organization and recommend technology that would improve the client outcomes and make the work of the legal service providers more effective, they would, of course, be all for it, especially if the expert were to then select the technology and supervise its installation and the training of all parties to efficiently make use of the new resource. This type of needs analysis is often carried out by consultants for various government functions, so there is no reason why it could not be done here with the correct funding and oversight.

As the Task Force’s 2010 Report recognized, civil legal assistance can reduce litigation costs and relieve court congestion. Although not appropriate for every circumstance, where appropriate, Alternative Dispute Resolution programs can be effective in this regard, as they can offer parties the opportunity to frame their dispute in a constructive manner and to work together, with a mediator, to resolve the dispute, clarify rights and responsibilities or restructure relationships. Increased emphasis on alternative dispute resolution in appropriate matters can resolve more disputes at lower cost and with higher participant satisfaction. Even when matters are not fully resolved in the alternative dispute resolution process issues are often identified and narrowed so as to facilitate swift resolution by the courts.

In Western New York, for example, the Community Dispute Resolution Centers, run by Child and Family Services’ Center for Resolution and Justice, offers a cost-efficient, consumer friendly program that mediates disputes involving divorce, special education, landlord tenant relationships, and contracts. Farther downstate, the Richmond County Community Dispute Resolution Center notes that since budget cuts made an already tight budget even leaner it has significantly impacted in their ability to provide additional hours of service. Decreased funding has drastically affected the Center’s ability to recruit and train new volunteer mediators, which is highly significant, given their volunteer-based model of operation. Lack of funding has also severely curtailed the service’s outreach to the community and the courts. This issue, reported in 2013, remains a priority.

A representative of the mediation community said that:

In addition to funding for our current programs, we are interested in funding for new and different programs. We have provided Peer Mediation Trainings to several schools on Staten Island, which we would like to continue to do so. Additionally, we would like funding to bring Restorative Practices to several different environments, such as the schools and police programs. Lastly, we recently went to an Urban Agricultural Conference and we are excited about the prospect of bringing our mediation skills to the widespread urban-agricultural community in NYC.

Perhaps alternative dispute resolution models could be developed that would assist in providing civil legal services to rural and agricultural communities throughout the State. For example, the use of technology combined with alternative dispute resolution would offer access to parties on rural areas that may not have established alternative dispute resolution programs.  WBASNY commends the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice for its continuing efforts to address the need for expanded access to civil legal services, and offers its continued support for adequate and stable funding to achieve the fundamental ideal of justice for all.