Task Force: Court Funds Opened More Doors to Civil Legal Services

, New York Law Journal

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An increase in state aid for civil legal services, plus the damage and disruption wrought by Hurricane Sandy, combined to more than double the number of low-income New Yorkers helped through the state-aided legal programs last year, according to a new report.

Using data supplied by the Office of Court Administration, the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York reported that 267,965 New Yorkers were served by civil legal services programs funded by the judiciary in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, up from the 125,169 who were aided in the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ended on March 31, 2012.

The report, the fourth issued by the task force, describes the "desperate need" for the increased availability of legal services created by Sandy when it struck downstate areas on Oct. 29, 2012. And as more New Yorkers struggle financially or find themselves in poverty, additional legal help is increasingly critical, the report argues. That's true despite a funding boost to the judiciary for civil legal services from the 2011-12 fiscal year to 2012-13.

Number of Clients Served by Judicial Department for the past two years

The task force estimated that only 20 percent of the need for legal services is being met.

"The continuing gap in civil legal services in New York state is still substantial, and providing cost-efficient assistance provides an economic benefit to the state," said task force chair Helaine Barnett, former president of the federal Legal Services Corp.

All four judicial departments in New York served more clients in the 2012-13 budget year. In the Second Department, where the devastation from Sandy was greatest, clients served surged to 135,387 from 57,975.

The Judiciary allocated $40 million for civil legal services this year, up from last year's $25 million.

Of the monies for the current fiscal year, $25 million went to renewed contracts entered the previous year. Recipients of the remaining $15 million were announced in August following a request for proposals over the summer. All told, an oversight board established by the courts awarded funding to 69 groups, 10 of which received funding from the judiciary's annual budget for the first time (See List of Recipients).

The board tried to choose projects that would target the state's 2.3 million pro se litigants who appear annually in court—specifically, those facing eviction, consumer credit and child support cases.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary last week proposed an increase to $55 million of its legal services spending in the 2014-15 budget that will take effect on April 1.

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