The unmet need for civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers continues to be one of the greatest challenges facing our state's justice system. In recent weeks, the Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Services in New York reported for the third year in a row that there is a continuing and unacceptable crisis of the unrepresented in the courts of New York state.1 Every year, millions of the most vulnerable New Yorkers are left to navigate a complex legal system without the help of a lawyer. We have made great strides in addressing the justice gap between the need for legal assistance and the resources available to fill that need through increased public funding and the efforts of the judiciary and the bar. But the job is far from done. We must continue to look for ways to promote access to justice in New York state.
Addressing the Crisis
The judiciary has been successful in obtaining substantial funding for civil legal services in its budget for the last two years, with the support of the legislature and the governor. Our budget proposal for the coming year includes additional monies for civil legal services, and again includes funds to help rescue the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund of New York state. IOLA in past years has been a significant source of funding for service providers, but has dwindled by nearly 80 percent due to historic low interest rates. This effort to secure permanent and steady public funding for civil legal services has been bolstered by the strong advocacy of the organized Bar in New York state. Earlier this month, the State Bar Association unveiled its legislative priorities for the coming year, which reiterated its focus on legal services for the poor who are facing life-altering civil legal problems.
Funding for civil legal services does not only benefit the clients receiving the services. It results in considerable economic advantage to our state. In 2012, NERA Economic Consulting conducted an analysis of the amount and impact of federal funds that flow into the state as a result of the provision of civil legal services. NERA concluded that, for every dollar spent on legal representation for the poor, approximately six dollars are returned to our state in combined cost-savings, benefits obtained, and economic activity.2
More Can Be Done
For all the difference that current funding has made, however, it is not enough given the extent of the crisis, where at best only 20 percent of the civil legal service needs of low-income New Yorkers are being met. The individual efforts of attorneys giving their time and skills to help those in need are essential to closing the justice gap. The wonderful contributions of the Bar deserve recognition. The Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Services in New York tells us that nearly three-quarters of New York's lawyers provided pro bono legal services in 2012.3 On average, these attorneys contributed 66 hours of pro bono work, with the majority exceeding the 20-hour goal set by New York Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1.
But more can be done to enhance the pro bono contributions of private attorneys. The Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Services in New York made several recommendations in its most recent report to increase the level of pro bono involvement by the Bar. Most notably, the Task Force recommended amendments to New York's Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1, which "strongly encourages" lawyers to perform pro bono work to benefit poor persons. The amendments would raise the aspirational goal for pro bono work from 20 hours each year to 50 hours each year. This modification would bring New York in line with the ABA's model rule, which promotes 50 hours of service, and would be consistent with the 50 hours in New York's new pro bono bar admission requirement. Rule 6.1 also encourages lawyers to make financial contributions to legal service providers; the Task Force recommends that guidelines for financial contributions be added to Rule 6.1 quantifying a suggested annual contribution based on the value of one hour's worth of the attorney's time.
In addition, the Task Force recommends that attorneys be required to report their pro bono hours and financial contributions to legal service providers on their biennial attorney registration forms. By asking attorneys to include their hours of pro bono service on their registration forms, we can hope to encourage them to do more. Other states that have instituted reporting of pro bono work have found a significant increase in participation in the years following their new requirement. Moreover, collecting data on the pro bono service of New York's attorneys can help us make better use of the resources that support pro bono work and improve the delivery of services.
Moving Closer to Equal Justice
I am working with the Administrative Board of the Courts and Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti to address the recommendations outlined in the Task Force's report. Given the tremendous need, there can be no doubt that we cannot rest on our laurels in enhancing civil legal services in our state. We have just scratched the surface of this deep and continuing crisis that is so fundamental to the fairness of our system of justice. By working together, the goal is to move that much closer to making the ideal of equal justice a reality for all New Yorkers.
Jonathan Lippman is Chief Judge of the State of New York.
1. November 2012 Report of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, available at http://www.nycourts.gov/ip/access-civil-legal-services/.
2. November 2012 Report of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, at 19.
3. November 2012 Report of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, at 33.