Top New York Judge Urges Greater Legal Rights for the Poor

Editor’s Note: Judge Lippman is certainly onto something here. There is no doubt that the poor get the short end of the stick when it comes to legal matters. Whether this will have any effect on foreclosures is a question that cannot be answered as yet. With more people moving into the poverty level due to declining real wages and joblessness, it would certainly be a step in the right direction to provide legal assistance to people when it comes to having a roof over their head.

With foreclosures the problem is getting an attorney who understands that most mortgages these days are securitized and that this has important ramifications for defense of foreclosures and evictions. it is entirely possible that the wrong party is acting against the tenant or owner or that the mortgage has been paid in whole or in part through various credit enhancement instruments that protect the creditor (the one who actually advanced the money) from loss.

April Charney is leading the way for Legal Aid and other organizations to provide competent help for indigent or financially challenged persons in the cross hairs of some pretender lender. There is no way for her to do it alone. Inch by inch we seem to be crawling away from this mess. But progress is slow and might be illusory. Recent events in Europe show that these manipulations of exotic financial instruments are wreaking havoc on everyone.

The real answer is to bust the Oligarchy of banking interests who have literally cornered the market on money itself. That takes a lot of will power, a lot of people demonstrating their willingness to engage the banks, and a lot of politicians who need to be coerced into blocking the financial sector from meddling in our lives.
May 3, 2010

Top New York Judge Urges Greater Legal Rights for the Poor


New York’s chief judge called on Monday for a new guarantee of a lawyer for poor people in civil cases, like suits over eviction and other disputes where basic needs are at stake, pushing the state to the forefront of a national effort to expand the right to representation for the indigent.

In a speech in Albany, the chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, said his proposal, the first such plan by a top court official in New York, reflected a commitment by the state’s courts “to bring us closer to the ideal of equal access to civil justice” that he described as one of the foundations of the legal system.

“I am not talking about a single initiative, pilot project or temporary program,” Judge Lippman said, “but what I believe must be a comprehensive, multifaceted, systemic approach to providing counsel to the indigent in civil cases.”

There was no price tag on the proposal, which could cost many millions of dollars. But Judge Lippman sought to avoid having it fall victim to the politics of the recession by announcing that he would hold hearings before pushing a detailed plan forward next year.

The government has been required to provide lawyers for people facing jail because of criminal charges since a landmark ruling by the United States Supreme Court in 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright.

But that protection has never included civil cases. Lawyers for the poor argue that it should because civil courts are where people who cannot afford lawyers often face the loss of the necessities of life in lopsided legal battles. Opponents say more government-paid lawyers for the poor will paralyze the courts with needless disputes.

Some Democratic legislators said they were interested in Judge Lippman’s idea. In a statement, Speaker Sheldon Silver said the Assembly had been a strong supporter of civil legal services for nearly 20 years.

Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the State Senate Democratic leader, John L. Sampson, said the senator had always supported programs that provided lawyers for indigent New Yorkers and was looking carefully at what Judge Lippman had put forward.

Judge Lippman, a longtime court administrator, has set an unabashedly liberal course as chief judge, a position he assumed last year after he was nominated by Gov. David A. Paterson. In addition to a seat on the highest court in New York, the chief judge also has a broad role as the top administrative official of the state’s sprawling court system.

The speech may well give Judge Lippman national prominence in efforts in recent years by lawyers for the poor, consumer advocates and some legislators around the country to expand the right to a lawyer. California passed a law in 2009 intended to expand legal counsel in civil cases.

There have been local bills elsewhere, including in New York City, and lawsuits in several states arguing that the protections of the legal system are often meaningless to people too poor to hire lawyers. In 2006, the American Bar Association said there should be a right to a lawyer in civil cases where basic human needs were at stake, like those dealing with shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody.

Advocates for the right to a lawyer in civil cases — some of them call it a “civil Gideon” right, referring to the 1963 ruling for criminal cases — said Monday that Judge Lippman’s speech was one of the most notable steps in their efforts.

“It is a very important statement, both in New York and nationally, about the need for access to justice. I don’t know that any stronger voice has come forward,” said Donald Saunders, a vice president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the largest national group of lawyers for the poor.

In his speech, Judge Lippman said the recession had swelled the ranks of New Yorkers who could not afford lawyers facing civil legal problems to more than two million a year.

Judge Lippman said he would hold hearings beginning this fall in every part of the state to assess the extent and nature of the unmet need for civil legal representation. He said the hearings would end with recommendations to the Legislature of the kinds of civil cases in which legal representation should be required and what financing would meet those needs.

Legal Aid and other providers of civil legal representation to poor people in New York State operate on about $200 million a year, officials say, a combination of federal, state, local and privately raised money. Those organizations said that they were unable to meet the needs but that the extent of the shortfall was not known.

Steven Banks, the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society in the city, called it “a huge step” for the leader of the court system to endorse the idea that poor people had a right to a lawyer, whether they found themselves in criminal or civil court.