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State Budget Results: Funding for Legal Services - Cuts, Restorations and Hope for the Future

April 12, 2011


Empire Justice voiced a mix of optimism and deep concern as the dust settles on the state budget and the funding picture for civil legal services emerges.  The legal services community has suffered significant losses over the past few years as state legislative funding has dropped from approximately $13 million in 2009, to $6 million in 2010 to less than $3.5 million in this year’s budget.   The cuts will be devastating to an already overwhelmed delivery system which has seen over $10 million in critical state funding drained from services in the past two years.

Unfortunately, in restoring funding for civil legal services, the Assembly Majority was only able to restore funding through the Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF).  What had been traditionally funded through the Department of State (DOS) was not included in the restorations.  In addition, what had been allocated by the Senate Democratic Majority in 2009 and 2010, was eliminated with the change in Senate leadership and the subsequent shift in priorities.  The one bright spot on the legislative front came from bi partisan support for a total of $1.8 million for domestic violence legal services with both houses supporting these funds.

The hope for the future comes from the extraordinary leadership of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman who is now leading the charge to expand the state’s investment in access to justice.  Responding to the findings of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, the Chief Judge recommended a new appropriation of $25 million be included in this year’s budget to help stabilize the legal services delivery system and begin to address the needs of some 2.3 million litigants who flood New York’s civil courts each year without representation.

In the last week of budget negotiations, the Governor insisted on $70 million in cuts to the judiciary budget, which had already been reduced by $100 million from its starting point of basically flat funding at $2.7 billion.  In order to reach that level of reduction, the Chief Judge reduced the proposed funding for civil legal services by 50% to $12.5 million.

How that funding will be distributed is still under discussion, with the Chief Judge’s Task Force to  Expand Access to Civil Legal Services developing a recommended approach to ensure fair and equitable distribution across the state. 

The final budget also contains a $15 million appropriation through the Unified Courts Budget to off-set the dramatic reduction in income from the Interest on Lawyer Account (IOLA) Fund.  This is the second year of the IOLA “rescue” fund initiated by Chief Judge Lippman.

So as the community braces to absorb the loss in state funding, there is hope that the new judicial funding will soften the blow, allowing services to be maintained and expanded.

For more information, please contact:

Anne Erickson

Empire Justice Center
119 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY  12210 

(518) 462-6831
(518) 935-2852