Sequester may cut legal services, but not the Brooklyn court system

February 26, 2013 By Charisma Miller Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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For many people, March 1, 2013, is just a date on the calendar. But for those who rely on federal funding for the operation of their legal programs, March 1 may come with a daunting prospect.

Lawmakers in Washington have, for months, been haggling with a looming debt crisis, trying to curb America’s debt of more than $16 trillion. In response to this crisis, Congress passed a sequester bill — an array of budget cuts to the military and domestic discretionary spending.

Intended to be a negotiation tool to force congressional Republicans and Democrats to reach a deal, the sequester has now become a bludgeoning device, preventing either side from giving any ground.

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The negotiations have not succeeded, and the sequester will likely go into effect as planned, leaving hundreds of legal service agencies grappling with the reality of a decrease in, or end to, funds and programs.

As reported by the New York Law Journal, Legal Services NYC stands to lose $717,000 of its funding from the national Legal Services Corp.  The sequestration cuts “would be a big hit,” said Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC.

“Much of the legal services community, particularly Legal Services NYC that gets at least one-third of its money from the federal government, will be affected by the sequester,” said Marty Needelman, executive director and chief counsel for Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A.  

Having separated itself from the citywide legal services system, Brooklyn A does not receive direct federal funding.  “Brooklyn A will not lose direct funding, but we will feel secondary waves,” Needelman noted.  

“Sequestration will affect a significant amount of money that comes into the state,” he added. “If the state loses funding, then the State will have to cut back on the funding they provide to legal services such as Brooklyn A.”

Steve Banks, chief attorney for the Legal Aid Society, echoed Needelman’s sentiments. Similar to Brooklyn A, the Legal Aid Society does not receive any direct federal funding. Despite its non-dependence on federal funds, the Legal Aid Society will also feel a ripple effect.

“The city and the state receive federal block grant money, a portion of which the state and city provide us for our services to low-income communities. Any reduction in this funding that result in state and city cuts will make the current grim situation even direr,” Banks said.

This lack of direct funding does not, however, reduce the impact of the sequester on Brooklyn residents seeking legal aid.

In the summer, “There was all this talk going on about falling off the fiscal cliff on July 1, but this current cliff will be equally steep in March and will have a very significant impact on New Yorkers, especially Brooklyn — a borough that houses the highest number of low-income New Yorkers,” Banks told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“Brooklyn residents will experience problems ranging from lack of access to certain benefits and further limitations to the access of legal services,” Banks continued.

While access to free legal services may be hindered, it does not appear that the looming sequester will have a sudden impact on Brooklyn’s courts.

Barry Kamins, administrative judge for criminal matters for the Second Judicial District, said, “My understanding is that [the sequester] will not have any immediate impact on court operations.”

Still, it is clear that the political wrangling in Washington will have an effect on the legal services provided to and the lives of Brooklyn residents.

As Needelman noted, “It will be a tidal wave that will impact all of us and therefore our clients directly. It is a potentially catastrophic event especially in this atmosphere where our clients are themselves suffering from the effects of an economic downturn and recession.”

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