Assigned counsel gets pay raises, but NYSBA says it’s not enough

May 4, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Sherry Levin Wallach, president of the New York State Bar Association, has commented on the assigned counsel provisions in the 2023-24 state budget bills, noting that while progress has been made, more needs to be done to ensure adequate legal representation for children and indigent adults.

In a statement, Wallach expressed appreciation for Gov. Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders acknowledging the state’s responsibility to protect the constitutional right to counsel for those who cannot afford their own lawyer.

The enacted budget raises the pay of assigned counsel outside of New York City, which has remained stagnant for nearly two decades, resulting in a concerning shortage of attorneys taking on cases in criminal and family courts.

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However, Wallach pointed out that the New York State Bar Association’s policy calls for full state funding for this essential service, rather than burdening local communities with an unfunded mandate. The current budget does not meet this requirement and disappointingly lacks a cost-of-living increase for assigned counsel attorneys.

“The New York State Bar Association’s policy calls for having the cost for this critical service fully funded by the state and not as an unfunded mandated shouldered by local communities,” Levin Wallach said. “This is not currently the case. It is also disappointing that the budget lacks a cost-of-living increase for assigned counsel attorneys, which raises the threat that we will again be back where we started in short order.

“We call on the Legislature and the governor to work together to establish a stable, sustainable, and recurring source of funding to benefit all the needy individuals who require the services of court-appointed attorneys. Ensuring that every New Yorker can realize their constitutional right to fair and quality representation is incumbent on all of us. Failure to do so is an injustice that can no longer stand.”

Wallach urged the legislature and the governor to collaborate on creating a stable, sustainable, and recurring source of funding for court-appointed attorneys, emphasizing the importance of fair and quality representation for all New Yorkers.

In November 2022, the New York State Bar Association filed a lawsuit to compel the state to raise pay to $164 an hour in the 57 counties outside of New York City, matching the rate paid to court-appointed attorneys in New York’s federal courts. The suit is still pending. In July 2022, state Supreme Court Justice Lisa Headley issued a preliminary injunction, in response to a suit filed by the New York County Lawyers Association and other bar associations, requiring that pay for assigned counsel in New York City be increased to $158 an hour.

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