Testimony before the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Judiciary: Implementation of the State Budget on the Judiciary

December 1, 2017

Chair Dinowitz, Assembly Members, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Judiciary Committee regarding the state judiciary budget.  My name is Beth Goldman, and I am the President & Attorney-in-Charge of 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, veterans, as well as others in need of free legal services.

I want to start by welcoming Chair Dinowitz to his new position as Chair of this committee.  We thank you for your longstanding of support civil legal services and look forward to working closely with you going forward.  I also want to express NYLAG’s deep gratitude to former Chair Helene Weinstein, who steered this committee for many years and was an unwavering supporter of increased Judiciary funding for civil legal services.

New York State has made an unprecedented commitment to funding for civil legal services over the past several years, with Judiciary funding now standing at an impressive $100 million, including both the $85 million in Judiciary Civil Legal Services funding and the $15 million in supplemental IOLA funding.  This funding has allowed dozens of civil legal services providers around the State to expand their capacities to provide critical services to the most vulnerable populations.  This has clearly contributed to the significant increase in the percentage of low-income New Yorkers whose civil legal services needs are being met by legal service providers, which according to the most recent report by the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice, jumped from 20% in 2010 to 37% in 2016.[1]  For NYLAG, this increase in funding has contributed in large part to our major expansion over the past several years.  In the 2016-17 State fiscal year, NYLAG handled 47,847 cases, compared to 25,755 in the 2010-11 fiscal year.  This increase of over 50% would not have been possible but for the massive increase in state funding.

Last year, JCLS and IOLA funding together supported 48 FTE legal staff at NYLAG, more than 17% of the total staff.  Because  these two funding streams are not limited to a single area of law and do not mandate a particular type of service, NYLAG is able to support practice areas where there is little or no designated public and private funding, handle more complicated and otherwise unfunded cases in practice areas with strict grant requirements, and support innovative service delivery models that focus on underserved communities and clients.  NYLAG currently uses these State funding sources to support or fully fund programs that focus on immigrants, seniors, survivors of domestic violence, LGBTQ New Yorkers, veterans, people with disabilities, consumers facing issues related to debt, employees who are unfairly discriminated against, and children with special education needs.  These programs, such as the Employment Law Project, the LGBTQ Law Project, and the Total Life Choices Project, which addresses the advance planning needs of low-income people, reach many of the most vulnerable New Yorkers.  Many of these programs would not be able to exist without the funding received from the Judiciary budget.

Still, the current level of funding is simply not enough to provide access to counsel for all those low-income New Yorkers in need, and the most vulnerable populations are often those with the most need.  For the 63% of low-income New Yorkers whose needs are not currently being met by available services, the current funding levels are not sufficient.  Legal services are clearly a prudent investment, as it has been shown to return $10 in substantial economic benefits to New York State for every $1 provided.[2]  But funding is not the only answer.  Legal services providers must continue to work with the courts and other stakeholders to explore more innovative models of service delivery; reach people in their own communities, even before a crisis occurs; and expand capacity by leveraging existing resources, such as volunteers.

Innovative Service Delivery Models

The ability to meet new and emerging needs is an important tenet of NYLAG’s services, and the organization uses its flexibility  to come up with new and creative ways to provide legal services to communities in need.  Many of these innovative service delivery models allow the organization to reach a larger number of people than it could through in-court representation alone.  While NYLAG would prefer to fully represent every client in need, it is important to provide programs that reflect the reality that this is not currently possible, and that information, advice, and brief services often lead to positive legal outcomes for clients.

NYLAG partners with OCA on the Consumer Debt Volunteer Lawyer for the Day program, a consortium of legal services providers that provide in-court representation in consumer court to those unable to afford it.  NYLAG oversees volunteer attorneys and student interns at the consumer courts in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, representing litigants who come to court with no representation or ability to defend themselves in debt collection lawsuits.  This innovative leveraging of volunteers and pro bono attorneys allows NYLAG effectively and efficiently to represent a large number of clients using minimal resources, helping them avoid protracted litigation and ensuring that the courts are not tied up with frivolous lawsuits.  Last year, the VLFD program provided limited scope representation to 3,730 low-income consumers throughout the five boroughs.

A partnership between NYLAG and the Legal Aid Society, Project FAIR runs a help desk at the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Office of Administrative Hearings at 14 Boerum Place in Brooklyn, providing critical legal advice and information to individuals prior to their Fair Hearings on obtaining and maintaining public benefits.  NYLAG also runs the Economic Justice Clinic, in which law students are trained and supervised by NYLAG to staff the help desk, which has expanded the Project’s ability to provide services.

NYLAG also uses innovative service models to help clients avoid court.  For example, NYLAG’s Divorce Mediation Project assists low-income New Yorkers who wish to resolve matrimonial disputes without protracted litigation. The Project works with those who need mediation on issues including divorce, division of marital property and debts, custody and visitation, child and spousal support, and workplace disputes. NYLAG created a model of comprehensive services from intake to final divorce judgment that relies almost entirely on pro bono work, including both pro bono consulting attorneys and mediators. Low-income New Yorkers have access to a full range of free divorce mediation services that result in an agreement that is enforceable in a court of law. By keeping disputes out of the courtroom, NYLAG’s mediation has led to faster outcomes; more control by the parties over the timing, pace and length of meetings and the issues discussed; more personalized and creative solutions; and greater effectiveness, as parties are more willing to adhere to solutions that they have reached themselves.

 

Reaching People in Their Own Communities

NYLAG’s unique community-based model is key to reaching people before they have a legal crisis.  Many low-income individuals face barriers to accessing traditional legal services, including geographic isolation, health and disability issues, inability to pay for public transportation, childcare concerns, lack of English proficiency, and fears about immigration status.  To combat these issues, NYLAG has been a pioneer in community-based lawyering.  By bringing legal services to communities, and by partnering with organizations already trusted by community members, NYLAG is able to reach large swaths of vulnerable people who otherwise would not have reached out for help until they reached a true crisis point.

For example, NYLAG’s Mobile Legal Help Center allows the organization to reach communities throughout the Greater New York City region, including chronically underserved parts of Long Island.  A partnership between NYLAG and the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program, the Mobile Legal Help Center brings free, civil legal services to these communities where vulnerable individuals are often unable or unwilling to access traditional legal services programs.  The vehicle serves as a fully functioning mobile legal services office and courtroom, allowing NYLAG to serve clients anywhere through community-based organizations and elected officials.  By partnering with these trusted entities, NYLAG is able to reach clients who otherwise would not seek legal assistance.  The vehicle has also proved to be an incredible resource in the wake of disaster, as we saw after Superstorm Sandy, when we used it to begin triage work immediately in devastated communities, making connections with people who would later be in desperate need of legal help.  Last year, more than 1,000 cases were intaked in communities throughout the Greater New York City area through the Mobile Legal Help Center.

Another important way to reach people in their own communities is through the use of legal clinics, which can reach a large number of people in a short amount of time.  NYLAG has used clinics especially judiciously in its work with immigrant clients, even more so in recent months as changes on the federal level have changed the landscape of immigration law.  NYLAG’s large-scale clinic model provides legal services and community education to high volumes of immigrants in safe and convenient environments such as community-based organizations, schools, churches, and libraries.  Using a combination of experienced attorneys and pro bono volunteers proficient in the languages spoken in the particular communities, NYLAG is able to provide comprehensive legal screening and services, as well as Know Your Rights presentations and fraud awareness and prevention trainings.  By screening clients in their own communities, NYLAG is able proactively to reach those who have a potential path to citizenship or other immigration options, as well as warn those who do not have a viable path, before they are exposed to potential deportation.  Given the fear and confusion many immigrants are facing in the wake of the federal administration’s current and threatened policies, it is more important than ever for NYLAG to reach them in their own communities in conjunction with trusted organizations.

Leveraging Resources

NYLAG could not have the impact it does without a heavy reliance on volunteers – both lawyers and non-lawyers.  Many of its programs, including all of those described above, incorporate volunteers as an essential part of their practices.  Last year alone, NYLAG leveraged the services of 2,201 volunteers, who contributed an astounding 88,649 hours of service, and worked with nearly 100 law firms in the New York City area.  In addition to pro bono attorneys, NYLAG hosts dozens of law students through its robust Summer Internship Program and programs like Pro Bono Scholars, which allows third-year law students with an interest in public interest law to take the Bar early and devote their final semesters of law school to working full-time at legal services organizations in New York, and the Domestic Violence Clinical Center, which gives law students the opportunity to represent low-income victims of domestic violence in family offense, custody, and visitation cases under a Student Practice Order under NYLAG supervision.  Many non-attorneys also provide critical administrative assistance to NYLAG’s legal staff.  Law firms often host clinics, exponentially increasing the number of clients NYLAG is able to see in areas such as immigration and family law.  NYLAG will continue recruiting new pro bono attorneys and volunteers to ensure that it reaches the greatest number of vulnerable New Yorkers possible.

Recent law school graduates are another important resource that NYLAG utilizes to expand capacity.  For example, the Poverty Justice Solutions program has allowed for a great increase in the number of housing lawyers through its Fellowship program.  This is incredibly important in today’s environment, as New York City recently passed a universal access to counsel bill that will be fully implemented within the next five years and will rely on an influx of housing attorneys in the City.

Non-legal volunteers are also a key resource for legal services providers.  NYLAG partners with the Center for Court Innovation to run the Legal Hand office in Crown Heights.  The Legal Hand model allows legal services organizations to train and partner with community volunteers to provide key information to low-income members of their communities on a variety of legal issues, working through a storefront office in the community.  This innovative model brings access to justice to communities throughout New York, arming community members with the legal information, resources, and referrals they need.

No other state has made the kind of commitment to access to justice that New York has. We should all be very proud to live in a State that cares deeply about justice for all of its citizens and which has dedicated significant resources to back up that commitment.  None of us takes that for granted.  However, notwithstanding the fact that NYLAG is among the larger providers of free civil legal services in NY State, it remains the case that we must turn away the majority of the clients who approach us.  Despite unprecedented increases over the past several years through Judiciary Civil Legal Services and IOLA funding, there is simply more demand for legal services that providers are able to handle with current resources.  Let us not forget that the need still outpaces the services available, and many remain unserved.  I hope we can work together to expand capacity to serve more clients and to make further progress toward closing the justice gap.

I want to once again thank Chair Dinowitz and the committee for holding this hearing, and I look forward to continuing to work with our colleagues, the State Legislature, and the Office of Court Administration to ensure that all New Yorkers have the access to justice they deserve.

Respectfully submitted,

Beth Goldman

 

President & Attorney-in-Charge

 

[1] Permanent Commission on Access to Justice.  Report to the Chief Judge of the State of New York.  November 2016.  https://www.nycourts.gov/accesstojusticecommission/PDF/2016_Access_to_Justice-Report.pdf

[2] Id.