In her 2007 State of the Judiciary Address yesterday (Feb. 26, 2007, 30-pp pdf), New York’s Chief Justice Judith Kaye seemed to touch upon access to justice issues in only a perfunctory manner. Nevertheless, she had a few important things to say — including the fact that New York has an “estimated 1.8 million litigants who appear without lawyers.” You can find her page and a half treatment excerpted below the fold. Here is the introductory sentence:
“As always, we will continue our efforts to reduce the gap in the availability of civil legal services for the poor—by identifying a permanent funding stream for these services, by increasing pro bono legal services and by continuing initiatives to help selfrepresented litigants.”
Excerpts from the 2007 State of the Judiciary Address of NYS Chief Justice Judith Kaye (Feb. 26, 2007, 30-pp pdf, at 17 to 18),
Funding for Civil Legal Services
Finding a permanent funding scheme for civil legal services has long been at the forefront of the court system’s Access to Justice initiatives. We are all too well aware that, overwhelmingly, the need for civil legal services for the poor is not being met. We are greatly encouraged by Governor Spitzer’s commitment to improve the delivery of civil legal services and by the significantly increased funding levels in the Executive Budget.
For the coming fiscal year, the Judiciary Budget includes an appropriation of five million dollars from the State’s Legal Services Assistance Fund to supplement the funds in the Executive Budget. To facilitate this appropriation, we are seeking approval of a modest increase in our criminal history search fee from fifty two to sixty dollars, with six dollars of the increase allocated to this purpose. We appreciate the Governor’s expressed support for this initiative, and we are working with his office to establish an appropriate institutional home to oversee this new funding stream. We anticipate that these funds will provide support for direct legal services to the poor and encourage visionary proposals to enhance the delivery of these services.
It is beyond dispute that significant public health, safety and economic objectives are promoted when civil litigation is fairly resolved. When, for example, representation means that a family has a better chance to avoid eviction and homelessness, we all benefit. These are encouraging first steps.
Statewide Pro Bono
Our Statewide pro bono initiative—a grassroots effort that partners the bench, bar, legal educators, legal services providers and advocates for the poor on Local Pro Bono Action Committees—continues to grow. This initiative, which we are calling ProBonoNY, has an expanding network of local committees, with activities well under way in the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Judicial Districts. Already, free CLE programs offered in exchange for a pro bono commitment have signed up nearly two hundred attorneys in Syracuse and more than one hundred in the Ninth District. And in the Tenth Judicial District, the Suffolk County committee has targeted its pro bono efforts to assist poor people seeking appointment of a guardian. I think we’re off to a good start on ProBonoNY.
Assistance for Self-Represented Litigants
As our filings grow, so do the numbers of self-represented litigants in our courts. To ensure access to justice for the estimated 1.8 million litigants who appear without lawyers—some by choice, some for financial reasons—it is essential that we continue to develop programs that help them navigate the court system.
Fortunately, we have made significant strides, currently serving a majority of these litigants with a network of resources: offices dedicated to helping self-represented litigants; direct assistance from court-based staff in metropolitan area family and housing courts; public access computer terminals; special training for court employees on assisting the self-represented; and a web site (www.nycourthelp.gov) containing information, links and forms, soon to have important interactive features.
Among Judge Newton’s newer collaborations are an interactive online program, available at lawhelp.org, to help New York City tenants respond to nonpayment petitions, and, with Civil Court Administrative Judge Fern Fisher, a project providing limited legal assistance to low-income tenants in Manhattan Housing Court. We are confident that these services will be of enormous help to our growing numbers of self-represented litigants.