City Bar President Carey Dunne Testifies at Chief Judge’s Hearing on Civil Legal Services

New York City Bar Association President Carey R. Dunne testified today at Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s hearing on civil legal services for low-income New Yorkers, at the Appellate Division, First Department, in Manhattan. His prepared testimony follows:

Chief Judge Lippman, Justice Gonzalez, and Mr. James:  I am honored to testify before you today on behalf of the New York City Bar Association at this third series of hearings on access to justice for New Yorkers who cannot afford an attorney for their civil legal services needs.

The City Bar has long been committed to providing access to justice, and we work to achieve this on a local, national and international level.  In addition to our legal and policy work in this area, our public service affiliate, the City Bar Justice center, provides direct legal services by leveraging the efforts and resources of the City’s legal community to increase access to justice for low-income individuals.  And our Vance Center for International Justice stimulates and coordinates pro bono efforts in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere in the world.

The City Bar applauds the Chief Judge for his extraordinary leadership, and the Task Force for its extraordinary efforts, which have made New York a nationwide leader in the provision of civil legal services to the poor.  As a result of these efforts, and despite difficult budget constraints and other pressures, the judiciary budget provided a $12.5 million increase in legal services funding last year and an additional $12.5 million, for a $25 million increase over two years, a remarkable result in these difficult times.

As we all know, however, this funding increase is well short of where we need to be.  Unfortunately, we are confronting an intractable demand for civil legal assistance that all the legal services providers plus considerable pro bono efforts of New York’s lawyers cannot come close to meeting.  Though many statistics demonstrate this crisis, I cannot get past the number of two million – over two million New Yorkers walk into court each year with no legal counsel.  They generally do not have the skills, and often the language ability, to pursue or defend their legal positions, and thus are particularly at risk of losing their shelter or their subsistence or facing a break up of their family.  If these parties received representation, not only would their chances of success be greater, but their cases would be more effectively handled by an overburdened court system, and they might be able to recover some of the hundreds of millions of dollars New Yorkers are owed each year in federal benefits for which they are eligible.

Unfortunately, nothing happening in the larger world gives us comfort that these pressing needs will be met anytime soon.  Recent census statistics show that the poverty level in New York City grew in 2011 to 20.9%, with almost 1.7 million residents classified as poor.  Median income in the city declined.  Unemployment remains stubbornly high, and the figures do not even reflect all those who have given up looking for work.  While more are suffering in New York, the increase in the poverty population elsewhere in the country will result in a redistribution of federal legal services funding, so that New York providers will see double-digit declines even if the overall allocation to the legal services corporation remains the same.  Many lay-offs in legal services offices are occurring statewide.  And the federal government has not yet retreated from its own budget cliff, risking further cuts to federal funding in the immediate future.

Surely, we need new responses to this deepening crisis.  To start, we have a desperate need for additional civil legal services funding.  No single means of providing services to the poor is as effective as the experienced legal services offices and lawyers that operate so heroically.  They need more money, to offset federal losses and to try to meet the great need, as they have had to turn away at least 80% of those that reach out for help.  We urge that the judiciary budget include a substantial increase in legal services funding, to move closer to the $100 million increased budget goal that has been set by Chief Judge Lippman.

But we need to get more help from other sources.  We and other bar associations in New York have exerted substantial efforts to mobilize the private bar, and many lawyers have heard the call and given generously of their time and resources.  At the City Bar Justice Center, we have 2,171 trained volunteers, who joined with the justice center staff to assist nearly 20,000 people last year.  We increased the value of pro bono legal services donated through programs at the justice center from $18 million to $20 million since last year.  Our free legal hotline is supported by IOLA and OCA funding to assist thousands of New Yorkers with fast, free legal help on basic legal problems such as consumer debt, housing and family law, and it makes referrals to legal services when appropriate.  Our programs also reach veterans, 9/11 victim compensation fund claimants, immigrant women and children, and victims of domestic violence and trafficking.

While other bar associations are also working hard to provide vital pro bono assistance, the current pace of pro bono activity must be greatly accelerated, and we have to be open to new ways of getting that done.  We therefore fully support the recently issued 50-hour pro bono requirement for admission to the New York Bar.  We see the requirement as inculcating the spirit of pro bono, exposing all new lawyers in the state to the rewards of pro bono service and, with 9000 new lawyers being admitted each year, generating a substantial amount of legal services.  The rules provide a flexible approach, giving law students a broad range of ways they can help, and backing that up with a requirement that their efforts be supervised.  It is now up to legal services providers, law schools, bar associations and others concerned about providing legal assistance to develop effective ways for law students to assist.  The New York City Bar looks forward to doing its part and to working with others to see that law student pro bono efforts are harnessed effectively.

Similarly, we experienced lawyers need to do more.  There has been much effort to encourage pro bono service but that has to be greatly intensified.  The city bar has long been in favor of the concept of mandatory pro bono service.  We of course recognize that this has been a highly controversial issue within the bar.  However, we also support another approach which we believe would stimulate greater involvement: the mandatory reporting of pro bono activities.  In 1997, the City Bar proposed that New York lawyers be required to report the extent of their pro bono commitments, as well as their monetary contributions to organizations providing legal services to the poor (the report is appended to this testimony).   Our report drew on the experience of Florida, which was the first to establish the reporting of pro bono activities and contributions, both of which grew substantially after the reporting requirement was put into place.  Now, eight states have mandatory reporting.   Mandatory reporting in New York can be handled in a number of ways, though perhaps the easiest would be in the form used for the biannual registration renewal.  That is one of a number of details that would have to be developed, and we would be happy to work with the task force in designing such a program.

In closing, we face an historic opportunity to step up the funding for civil legal services through the New York State Office of Court Administration and the pro bono efforts of the legal profession.  The new bar applicant pro bono requirement will bring law schools further into pro bono work and create important resources to help combat the increase in the poverty rate and homelessness in New York City.   We must take what we have learned from the past fifty years of expanding access to justice for the poor and create smarter and more efficient ways to reach more people.  At the City Bar, I pledge our full support for these efforts.