Legal Aid Society Celebrates 130 Years in Brooklyn

January 20, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Society Began with Henry Ward Beecher in Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights
JORALEMON STREET — The Legal Aid Society celebrated 130 years of legal services in Brooklyn this week, with a special celebration held at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday night. Borough President Marty Markowitz welcomed the crowd and presented a proclamation, and New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman delivered the keynote address to mark the special event.

During the last century, The Legal Aid Society has handled more than 5 million cases in Brooklyn. There are approximately 96,488 individual cases and client matters every year in the borough.

Today, there are 10 Brooklyn offices responsible for The Legal Aid Society’s three major practice areas — Civil, Juvenile Rights and Criminal Defense law. In Brooklyn alone, there are 248 lawyers and124 non-lawyers, including social workers, investigators, paralegals and support and administrative staff.   

 The Legal Aid Society’s history in Brooklyn began in the 19th century.

In the early 1880s, the prominent clergyman and reformer Henry Ward Beecher donated space in the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights as a temporary office for volunteer lawyers to provide legal assistance for Brooklyn residents who could not afford the carriage fare to Manhattan.

During the next 10 years, the Society referred hundreds of cases to volunteer lawyers in Brooklyn and also continued to represent Brooklyn residents who were able to afford the carriage fare to the Society’s main office at the corner of Park Place and Broadway in Manhattan.

By 1906, the need for a Brooklyn branch was clearly demonstrated by the fact that 1,639 applicants traveled from Brooklyn to the Society’s main office. An early history of the Society pointed out the burden of that trip: “the loss of time and the cost of carfare to many a defrauded workman or deserted wife in Brooklyn make their application for help almost prohibitive.”  

On Jan. 1, 1907, the Brooklyn branch, servicing Kings, Queens and parts of Nassau counties was opened at 186 Remsen St. in Brooklyn Heights, where it remained for years.Hon. Barry Kamins (left), administrative judge of New York City Criminal Courts; Dawn Ryan (center), attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society’s Brooklyn Criminal Office; and Hon. William Miller (right), supervising judge of the Kings County Criminal Court.

In 1949, a Criminal Court office was opened in Brooklyn to represent residents in felony court. By 1959, a Criminal Court office was established to serve people charged with both misdemeanors and felonies.

In 1962, a Juvenile Rights office was established in Brooklyn to represent children, and The Legal Aid Society opened the Brooklyn Office for the Aging in 1974, the first of its kind in the nation to serve only senior citizens.

Other civil services continued to be provided from the main Park Place office and then directly from the offices in Brooklyn.

In 1998, The Legal Aid Society relocated many of its client services programs to 111 Livingston St. in Downtown Brooklyn, to enable staff to provide more efficient and cost-effective service. Since 2004, all of the Society’s Civil, Criminal, and Juvenile Rights client services for Brooklyn have been centered at the Livingston Street office.
From left: Steven Banks, Hon. Barry Kamins, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Richard J. Davis and Blaine “Fin” Fogg. Photos courtesy of The Legal Aid Society

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