New York lawyers should be encouraged to perform 50 hours of pro bono annually instead of 20, and they should be required to report their pro bono work when reregistering every two years, according to the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services.
The task force, appointed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, issued a report last week that said while the current level of commitment to pro bono is "encouraging," the demand remains as acute as ever, especially in light of continuing economic uncertainty and, more recently, Hurricane Sandy.
The panel estimated that each year, more than 2.3 million low-income New Yorkers go without representation for disputes over housing, health care and social services and unemployment benefits.
It said statewide, only about 1 in 5 indigent New Yorkers in need of pro bono counsel receive it, to the detriment of their interests as well as those of opposing parties such as banks, insurers, health care providers and landlords, and also the courts.
"When substantial numbers of unrepresented New Yorkers appear in court, the overall quality of justice for all litigants suffers because courts are less efficient when resources must be diverted from matters involving represented parties to try to assist unrepresented partiesand the results for unrepresented parties clearly differ from what can be achieved with counsel," said the task force, which is chaired by Helaine Barnett, the former president of the federal Legal Services Corporation and the one-time attorney-in-charge of the civil practice of the Legal Aid Society.
The panel collected evidence of what it called the continuing representational "gap" for poor New Yorkers during public hearings before the storm dealt a devastating blow to some parts of downstate New York. Legal services providers said the storm has prompted a surge in demand for civil legal services by low-income New Yorkers (NYLJ, Nov. 7).
"It was a desperate situation before the storm and it has become exponentially worse as the result of the storm," said Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force. "There are other natural disasters that are examples of what is going to happen as we go forward. What was found after [Hurricane] Katrina is that there is an increased amount of immediate needs and also an increased amount of longer-term needsan increased amount of family law because of the increased tension on family life, for instance. Also, with retraining services to help people get back into the job market and, of course, increased needs in terms of housing."
Barnett said it was too soon to assess the additional legal needs of low-income New Yorkers affected by Sandy.
"I don't think we can quantify it at this time other than to say that we know the problems continue to grow and even become more complicated as time passes," she said in an interview. "It will certainly add to the continuing, substantial access-to-justice gap."