Testimony by Randal Jeffrey, Director of General Legal Services, before the NYC Council Committee on Courts & Legal Services regarding an Office of Civil Justice

 April 15, 2015

Chair Lancman, Council Members, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Courts and Legal Services Committee about Intro 736, which will establish an Office of Civil Justice in New York City.  My name is Randal Jeffrey, and I am the Director of the General Legal Services unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG).  NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers.  NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, and veterans, as well as others in need of free legal services.

Office of Civil Justice

NYLAG is deeply appreciative of the commitment by the City Council and the Administration to increasing the availability of civil legal services.  Thanks to the financial support the City has shown, civil legal services organizations such as NYLAG have been able to expand the breadth of our services and increase the number of New Yorkers we are able to serve each year.  Still, the need for free civil legal services for low-income New Yorkers remains enormous; just a small sample of the underserved includes:

  • 98% of appellants lack representation at the City’s administrative fair hearings for government benefits.
  • 96% of defendants are unrepresented in consumer credit cases, including cases of identity theft.
  • 91% of petitioners do not have lawyers in child support matters in Family Court.
  • 90% of tenants were unrepresented in eviction cases in last year.

We know that having a lawyer makes a huge difference.  In housing court, for example, the likelihood of eviction drops dramatically when a tenant is represented.  Numerous studies show that tenants represented by counsel default less often, receive better settlements, and win more often at trial.  Landlords who know that tenants are represented by attorneys are less likely to attempt to deceive or bully tenants out of their homes.

We are gratified that the City recognizes the need to provide these critical services to those who cannot otherwise afford them, and we enthusiastically welcome the creation of an Office of Civil Justice to coordinate these efforts.  We want to especially thank Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilmember Mark Levine for their tireless advocacy for civil legal services and for creating this dedicated office.

In particular, we believe that the Civil Justice Coordinator, as head the Office of Civil Justice, will be able to make an immense impact on the expansion of services throughout New York City by performing a focused assessment of the needs for a variety of legal services, planning for the expansion of legal services to meet these needs, determining the most effective way to provide them, and studying the effectiveness of various approaches to the delivery of legal services.

We believe that the work of the Office of Civil Justice will demonstrate conclusively the benefits of civil legal service programs to the City, to taxpayers – who save money in areas such as shelter costs, healthcare costs, and public benefits – as well as to poor and near-poor New Yorkers whose lives and prospects are greatly improved.  Armed with the knowledge gleaned from its assessments, the Office of Civil Justice will have the ability to carefully plan the expansion of civil legal services as funding continues to increase, ensuring that services grow in tandem with current and future needs, and that services are coordinated among providers throughout the City.

We strongly believe that further review will show that increased, sustained funding in the areas of housing, immigration, veterans services, domestic violence, and consumer protection, public benefits and employment law is necessary to maintain New York City’s vibrant and diverse communities. NYLAG has included an addendum to this testimony that provides the Committee with more information about each of these areas of concern so that, in the interest of time, I can restrict the remainder of my remarks to civil legal services in Housing Court.

The Right to Counsel in Housing Court

NYLAG is a member organization of the Right to Counsel Coalition, a group of more than 30 legal services organizations, tenant organizing groups, tenant advocates, and law school faculty. We are strongly committed to a codified right to counsel in Housing Court for low-income New Yorkers (defined as those at or below 200% federal poverty level).  We are encouraged by and grateful for the recent substantial increases in funding for housing services over the past several years, but that funding is not permanent and is vulnerable to changing priorities and economic exigencies.  By passing this legislation, New York City will ensure that the tenants most in need of counsel in Housing Court will be guaranteed representation.

NYLAG has been providing housing services since its inception. NYLAG established its dedicated Housing Project in 2008 in recognition of the humanitarian crisis related to the lack of affordable housing in the City.  With 20 staff members, NYLAG’s housing preservation practice is one of the largest in the City.  Along with many of the other organizations testifying today, we are an important safety net for low-income New Yorkers who currently do not have the right to representation in Housing Court.  Unfortunately, current services are simply not enough. The need for housing services continues to outpace the availability of experienced attorneys.  With increased funding, we are confident that the City’s legal services organizations will develop effective processes for staffing our housing programs with qualified attorneys, eventually ensuring that all low-income New Yorkers have representation in Housing Court.

Creation of the Office of Civil Justice is a visionary step for our City and a demonstration of our commitment to providing critical support to the most vulnerable among us. By playing a leadership role in advocating for a City-funded right to counsel in Housing Court, the Civil Justice Coordinator will build on that vision and make New York the first jurisdiction in the nation to level the playing field between landlord and tenant in eviction proceedings.

I want to once again take the opportunity to thank Chair Lancman and the members of the Committee for their outstanding leadership and commitment to civil legal services.  We look forward to continued conversations about the role of the Office of Civil Justice and the Civil Justice Coordinator.

Respectfully submitted,

Randal Jeffrey
Director, General Legal Services

 

Addendum to Testimony by NYLAG before the NYC Council Committee on Courts & Legal Services regarding An Office of Civil Justice

April 15, 2015

NYLAG strongly believes that the creation of the Office of Civil Justice, will have an immense and positive impact on the expansion of civil legal services throughout New York City by studying the need for legal services and determining the most effective way to provide them.  Further review will show that increased, sustained funding in the areas of housing, immigration, veterans services, domestic violence, consumer protection, public benefits and employment law is necessary to maintain New York City’s vibrant and diverse communities. This addendum provides the Committee with more information about each of these areas of concern.

Housing

The decline of affordable housing in New York City has become a humanitarian crisis. Rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments are at a premium and evictions often lead them to be returned to market rate, shrinking the affordable housing market even more. NYLAG and other legal services organizations work hard to ensure that communities retain their character, diversity and affordability by representing tenants in nonpayment and holdover proceedings, obtaining and preserving rent subsidies, and ensuring that people are given the time to find reasonable accommodations if they are evicted, keeping them out of the shelter system.  The Council and the administration have both shown a strong commitment to increased funding for housing services, and we are grateful.  The need for housing legal services is extraordinary and we are confident that the Office of Civil Justice will find that funding even beyond the current level is necessary to ensure that we preserve safe and affordable housing for vulnerable tenants and homeowners, prevent homelessness, provide economic security for families, and promote stability in our communities.

Immigration

The influx of unaccompanied minors arriving to the United States from Central America last year, along with President Obama’s recent announcement of administrative relief for some undocumented immigrants already living here, have made clear the need for immigration legal services in New York.  Civil legal services organizations, often in conjunction with the City Council and the administration, have been working together to ensure that immigrants are carefully evaluated for all potential forms of relief, assisted with application processes, and represented in administrative and administrative hearings.  In the wake of a crisis or changes in immigration law, it is critical for legitimate legal services providers to maintain close ties to immigrant communities to ensure that they are not the victims of immigration fraud.  The City has done an impressive job of responding rapidly to address critical immigration needs as they arise, but further study and funding is essential to ensure that all immigrants are given the information and assistance they need.  NYLAG is currently exploring different models of serving the immigrant community effectively, especially in the form of large-scale legal services clinics, and we look forward to working with the Civil Justice Coordinator to expand this important work.  Our community-based legal services clinics at the Council-sponsored Key to the City events are extraordinarily successful and we know that further study of the model will prove the need for increased funding for this type of service to immigrant communities.

Veterans

Tens of thousands of veterans in our community are poor or at high risk of poverty. Mental and physical health problems, as well as the fact that many veterans postponed or sacrificed higher education in order to pursue service, largely account for veterans’ high unemployment rates compared to other New York City residents, and their corresponding financial problems.  NYLAG was honored to receive the inaugural Legal Services for Veterans grant in the City budget last year and we believe that the Civil Justice Coordinator will find that the need for legal services in veteran communities, including assistance with VA benefits, public benefits, housing, consumer protection, and advance directives among others, is substantial and continuing to grow.  We hope that this finding will lead to increased funding for services to those who have selflessly served our country.

Domestic Violence

When domestic violence victims choose to leave their abusive partners, they often must navigate complex family law proceedings alone. Access to legal services greatly reduces the likelihood that a victim will be forced to return to the abuser; in fact, studies have shown that legal services are equally as important as shelter, counseling and other traditional services for domestic violence victims. Low-income victims of domestic violence require legal assistance with divorces, child and spousal support, orders of protection, and custody and visitation, among other issues. We hope that the Office of Civil Justice will study of the efficacy of legal services for domestic violence victims in New York City, resulting in an increase in the funding for this vulnerable population.

Consumer Protection

Despite recent improvement to the national economy, many New Yorkers still struggle with unemployment, depleted savings and unstable housing. Others, especially recent college graduates, are now experiencing the financial hardships that come with massive student loan debt.  These vulnerable New Yorkers are often targets of identity theft, debt collection scams, credit reporting errors, unjust foreclosure, and subprime loan conditions.  Civil legal services for consumers are desperately needed, yet there are not nearly enough practitioners.  Study of the consumer protection needs of low-income New Yorkers should lead to funding for this often-overlooked, yet vitally important area of civil legal service work.

Public Benefits

Access to free legal services is critical to those who have been denied public benefits for which they are eligible. SNAP (food stamps), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability (SSD), Medicaid, Medicaid home care, Medicare, and cash assistance benefits all provide a safety net for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. Unfortunately, all too often New Yorkers eligible for these benefits are unable to access them, due to bureaucratic errors or systemic failures to follow policy. In these cases, representation by lawyers and other legal advocates in administrative fair hearings and intervention with government agencies can mean the difference between securing available benefits and going without.  A Civil Justice Office can fully assess the needs in this area and recommend appropriate funding to more fully address them.

Employment Law

Many low-wage workers, especially immigrants, suffer from the failure of their employers to pay minimum wage and/or overtime, as required by the law. Others suffer from discrimination and harassment. Many workers must fight for unemployment insurance when they lose their jobs.  These legal violations harm not just the workers involved, but also the broader community: wages are suppressed, leading to less spending in lower-income communities. We are confident that a Civil Justice Office will see the need for funding in the employment law area.

Disaster Response                                              

Legal services play an essential role in the response to an emergency.  Legal services organizations such as NYLAG have played a central role in addressing wide-ranging emergency situations from terrorist attacks to natural disasters both abroad and in the United States, most recently Superstorm Sandy.  In the chaos that often follows a disaster, legal services organizations can provide vital information to victims and survivors.  For example, within 48 hours of Superstorm Sandy NYLAG mobilized its employees and volunteers, coordinated with organizations in Louisiana that had worked with victims of Hurricane Katrina, and began providing emergency services related to FEMA and SBA applications, insurance, and housing issues.  Currently NYLAG’s Storm Response Unit is the largest of its kind in the State, continuing to provide services on increasingly complex disaster-related issues.  The Office of Civil Justice will have the capacity to plan ahead for the potential of emergencies and will have the ability to organize legal services providers in the wake of these disasters.

Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation

In order to ease the already overburdened Family Court system, attorneys often turn to mediation when a family law conflict may be settled out of Court.  NYLAG began its Mediation Project in 2013 to address a gap in services for poor and moderate income families seeking mediations in family and matrimonial disputes.  The benefits of mediation are varied and include: faster outcomes than litigation; the ability of parties to decide the timing, pace, and length of their meetings and the issues discussed; the ability to devise tailored yet at times unorthodox solutions; and greater effectiveness, as parties are more willing to adhere to solutions that they have reached themselves. Many low-income New Yorkers are unable to afford costly mediation services and many free services available fall short of their needs because often only the first session is free or an agreement that is enforceable in Court is not reached because it has not been reviewed by outside independent counsel.  Many underserved individuals are not even aware that mediation is an option.  We hope that the Office of Civil Justice will include alternative dispute resolution in its scope of work and study, as this is a critical but underfunded area of legal services.

The lack of access to justice is one of the most serious social issues we face. We are grateful to the City Council and administration for recognizing the critical role that civil legal services can play in improving the lives of the poor and near poor.