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

New York City Bar Association President Debra L. Raskin testified today at New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearing on Civil Legal Services. The hearing took place at the Appellate Division, First Department, at 27 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Following is the testimony as submitted: Thank you.  I appreciate the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the New York City Bar Association at this annual hearing to address access to justice for New Yorkers who cannot afford an attorney for their crucial civil legal services needs.  First let me start by thanking Chief Judge Lippman, Helaine Barnett and the Task Force – now Permanent Commission – for its unwavering commitment over many years to the cause of providing funding for civil legal services.  It has been a true game-changer, and has improved thousands of lives and provided support for our courts.  Please know that you have the gratitude of the Bar, as well as our commitment to this issue going forward. The New York City Bar has long been committed to providing access to justice, though our policy and advocacy initiatives in support of civil legal services, court funding, and a right to counsel in Housing Court and detained removal cases, and through direct legal assistance provided by our public service affiliate, the City Bar Fund.  Within the City Bar Fund, our City Bar Justice Center leverages the efforts and resources of the City’s legal community to increase access to justice for low-income individuals in New York City through in-house and pro bono representation. Through Chief Judge Lippman’s and former Chief Administrative Judge Prudenti’s outstanding leadership, the Judiciary Budget now includes $85 million for civil legal services.  We urge that you stay the course toward the original goal of a $100 million increase in annual civil legal services funding.  This is a vital element of any effort to provide additional legal assistance to those who cannot afford it.  There are still far too many unrepresented people facing threats to their basic needs every day in our courthouses. Of course, adding $15 million in funding is a necessary but not sufficient condition.  We deeply understand the importance of pro bono representation, as well as the need to find innovative ways to leverage the volunteer efforts of New York’s legal community.  The City Bar has supported pro bono reporting, the 50-hour pro bono requirement for new lawyers, and the innovative Pro Bono Scholars Program. Through the Justice Center programs, we’ve engaged volunteer lawyers to assist homeless individuals, cancer survivors, immigrant women and children who have been trafficked or abused, families facing foreclosure and veterans, among others.  Our Legal Hotline is the largest free general civil legal services hotline in New York City.  And now, thanks to additional funding, Hotline attorneys are able to provide brief or limited legal services to callers, such as creating court papers for pro so litigants and assisting with filling out forms.  These services will be the focus of my testimony today because they provide a good framework to talk about the provision of unbundled legal services in civil cases to those who otherwise would be without representation. But first, some statistics.  The City Bar Justice Center helps about 25,000 New Yorkers annually with civil legal problems.  Last year, we closed approximately 13,000 cases and engaged approximately 1,400 pro bono attorneys to work on cases and conduct community trainings.  Included in those numbers are the thousands of New Yorkers who rely on the Legal Hotline, which we’ve expanded to include limited scope or unbundled legal services to callers.  Unbundled or limited scope services refers to the attorney agreeing to provide only one part of the legal services that a client may need.  This has become less controversial over the last decade and is no longer questionable ethically provided that the client is informed that they are receiving limited scope assistance in a clearly worded retainer letter. At the Justice Center, we use limited scope services for many of our existing projects, such as the Elderlaw and Consumer Bankruptcy Project, as well as our Legal Hotline.  We are also operating two very interesting new projects using limited scope representation – Legal Assistance to the Self Represented (LASR) which is an extension of the brief services we provide on the Legal Hotline and the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project (FedPro).  For purposes of this testimony, I will focus on state court matters only. Since November 2014, the Justice Center has handled approximately 2,300 limited scope service cases.  Representation in these cases varies depending on the needs of the individual and can include providing legal answers over the phone, sending callers know-your-rights information, reviewing a caller’s faxed documents and providing advice, and setting up an in-person appointment with the caller so that a more extensive legal issue can be resolved.  Limited scope representation often results in the avoidance or settlement of litigation or it empowers a pro se litigant to effectively move forward with a pending case.  Examples of such representation include:

  • Assisting a disabled client with drafting and sending cease and desist letters to creditors in order to stop harassment, then guiding him through the steps listed on the court’s website to vacate a default judgment in civil court;
  • Helping a single working mother file an uncontested divorce while securing child support and healthcare for her two children;
  • Demanding the return of more than a year’s worth of rent overpayment to a senior citizen who did not know that his adjusted rent amount was approximately half of what he was paying; and
  • Coming to the aid of a widow by drafting an Article 78 proceeding to correct her husband’s death certificate so that she might receive the death benefits to which she is entitled.

Quick, brief representation in these sorts of cases can result in credits and refunds issued to clients as well as end the threat of litigation. Barriers to Expansion of Unbundled Services/Limited Scope Although the vast majority of the Justice Center’s limited scope cases do not involve court representation, we are aware that not all judges have embraced the notion of attorneys undertaking only one part of a case.  Further, we are aware of pro bono attorneys being concerned that they may be asked to stay on for the whole case even if their retainer spells out the limited nature of the representation.  We believe that the court should continue to educate judges that this is an essential part of bridging the justice gap and that attorneys should ethically be able to end their services after they complete a portion of the case. The ability to do this varies by the practice setting and court/administrative agency and judges need to be encouraged to permit this.  Attorneys will not volunteer for limited scope representation in court or administrative settings if they think they cannot end their representation on the case as per the limited scope retainer letter. There is also a concern that pro bono attorneys who are trained to handle only one part of a case may fail to identify interconnected issues.  This increases the burden to explain carefully to the client that the representation will be limited in scope and will only focus on one aspect of a problem, which may entail additional legal issues.  In some cases, it would be inappropriate and in fact could worsen a problem to deal only with one issue. Those cases would not work for limited scope representation and should not be handled as limited scope matters. Going Forward with Unbundled Services/Limited Scope The City Bar Justice Center’s experience to date with unbundled legal services is very promising.  Our surveys of client satisfaction show that clients who can follow the directions are extremely happy with limited scope service and feel empowered.  The cases we’ve handled so far show potential to help even more people who cannot obtain full representation from a legal services or pro bono provider.  We believe that pro bono attorneys would be pleased to take on limited scope representation cases so long as the case is appropriate and an appropriate retainer letter is signed.   It is our hope to engage many more pro bono attorneys in this sort of representation.  It is our further hope to continue innovative collaborations around online intake for these sorts of cases, especially consumer debt cases. I want to end my testimony by talking about the Pro Bono Scholars Program.  This past Spring, the City Bar Justice Center hosted two Pro Bono Scholars and it was a fantastic experience for all involved.   Our Scholars came from New York Law School and Cornell Law School and provided invaluable assistance answering hotline calls and providing brief services to callers.  They received training and provided concentrated support, in particular, to elderly and veteran callers needing assistance.  We believe this program holds great promise and look forward to continuing our participation in it.

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Thank you for the opportunity to testify and a very special thank you to the Chief Judge for all he has done to improve access to justice in this state.  Your leadership has not only moved the needle, it has permanently altered the playing field.