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2016 NYS Budget Wrap: Civil Legal Services

April 27, 2016

Author: Anne Erickson

Investing in Justice

After a bit of a rollercoaster ride through the state budget process, in the end full funding for civil legal services was restored to the Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF), funding for domestic violence legal assistance was included at last year’s levels and a new installment of $15 million was made part of the Unified Court System budget, bringing the total of Judiciary Civil Legal Services (JCLS) funding to $85 million with a separate $15 million allocated once again to the Interest on Lawyer Account (IOLA) Fund.

A Year of Changes

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman first requested state funding for civil legal services as part of the judiciary budget in 2010.  It was a bold move, one that put responsibility for expanding access to civil legal aid squarely in the Judiciary for the first time.  Having watched funding for legal services diminish and languish for years in New York, despite the best efforts of the Assembly Majority to provide stable annual funding, and seeing the detrimental impact on the courts of literally millions of unrepresented litigants flooding the civil court system each year, he had a fundamental question as leader of the state’s Judiciary branch: “If not us, who?”  If not the Judiciary, which branch of state government would take responsibility to expanding access to legal assistance in civil matters?

With that the Office of Court Administration (OCA) took on new leadership in expanding access to justice in New York State.  A statewide Task Force was named, annual public hearings were held in each Judicial Department, studies by outside economists were conducted, court data was collected, reports were issued, funding was increased and delivery expanded.  The momentum built year by year.

In early December 2015, facing mandatory retirement, Chief Judge Lippman submitted his final state budget request, adding $15 million to the OCA budget along with base funding of $70 million and $15 million for the IOLA fund to continue to guard against dramatic losses driven by ongoing low interest rates.  If adopted by the Legislature, state judiciary funding for civil legal aid would reach the $100 million goal set by Judge Lippman in 2010.

A New Leader Emerges

Janet DiFiore was appointed Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals by Governor Andrew Cuomo on December 1, 2015.  She was confirmed by the New York State Senate on January 21, 2016, and took office the same day.  The state budget process was well underway; the Joint Legislative hearings on the Judiciary budget were held on February 4.    

While fully committed to expanded access to legal assistance, Chief Judge DiFiore faced an immediate challenge: the budget for the Unified Court System had not anticipated the approval of long-awaited pay raises for judges that had been announced subsequent to the budget submission.  The court system would need an additional $27 million to meet its obligations.  At the same time, Governor Cuomo was pressing his Executive agencies to hold their budgets to a 2% increase over the prior year; the Judiciary’s budget had come in at a 2.4% increase – without the judicial pay raises.  Without the authority to change the budget of the Judicial branch, the Governor urged the Legislature to bring the Judiciary’s budget into the 2% cap.

In the end, the Legislature approved the Judiciary budget as submitted – neither increasing it to account for the pay raises, nor decreasing it to accommodate the Governor’s 2% cap.  The Office of Court Administration is now working through exactly how to manage the competing needs within its overall budget. 

The base funding of $70 million is in place as is the $15 million pass through to IOLA.  The additional $15 million remains a commitment, but the funding may need to be allocated in such a way that OCA can manage its cash flow throughout the year. 

In Context: The Continuing Need for Civil Legal Services

Even with these significant new investments in legal aid in New York, the legal needs of low and moderate income New Yorkers continue to far outstrip the capacity to serve.  Families facing eviction or foreclosure, risking the very roof over their heads, end up facing banks and landlords and lawyers without any legal assistance on their side.  New Yorkers who are elderly and those living with disabilities face the loss of life saving health care and are left to confront managed care providers, the government and the medical system on their own.  Veterans, immigrants, victims of domestic violence, children with special needs – low income, vulnerable and up against complex legal systems without the benefit of counsel. 

In a 2010 survey of households with incomes below 200% of poverty, Lake Research found nearly half (47 percent) said they have experienced at least one of these core legal problems.  “This translates into almost 3 million low-income New Yorkers who have had a legal problem.”   (2010 Report of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services,

That same year, the Chief Judge’s Task Force to Expand Access to Legal Services received data from the Office of Court Administration (OCA) showing that an estimated 2.3 million New York residents went into civil courts in New York State each year without a lawyer.  Seventy percent of these civil matters dealt with the core issues of family, consumer credit and housing.

The Task Force found that:

  • 99% of tenants in New York City and 98% of those outside New York City were unrepresented in eviction proceedings.
  • 97% of parents are unrepresented in child support proceedings in New York City; 95% of parents in child support proceedings throughout the rest of the state face these proceedings without representation.
  • 99% of consumers facing credit problems and debt collection cases were unrepresented in New York City.

In order to begin meeting these needs, Chief Judge Lippman recommended for the first time that funding for civil legal services be included in the budget of the Unified Court System.  These funds were to be distributed statewide, to be targeted to essential legal needs and to be overseen by the Office of Court Administration (OCA).
This funding has had a significant impact on access to justice in our state.  Two key indicators of the impact were cited by the Commission on Access to Justice in its 2015 report:

  • Civil legal services organizations receiving funding through the Judiciary Civil Legal Services handled 423,676 cases, an increase of over 38,000 cases from 2014. 
  • Overall efforts have increased the percentage of civil legal needs being met, from 20% in 2010 to 31% in 2015.

While the impact is impressive, there is still a long way to go: almost 70% of the civil legal needs of New York’s low and moderate income households are going unmet.

Unfortunately, the need for services is also increasing: the Committee on Access to Justice found that 35% of New Yorkers were living on incomes at or below 200% of the poverty level in 2015, a 12% increase over the number living below 200% of the poverty level in 2010.  Based on this updated data, the Committee estimated that 1.35 million low income New Yorkers confront three or more civil legal matters each year (up from 1.2 million in 2010).

Going Forward

In the midst of settling into a huge new job, dealing with the state budget and meeting with key legislative leaders, the new Chief Judge met with the Commission on Access to Justice in early March.  She offered her unwavering commitment to improving access to justice and urged the Commission to stay the course.   The Commission is again meeting monthly and is thrilled to have a new leader at the helm.


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