Critical review of civil legal services underway

September 22, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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At the state Court of Appeals in Albany, Chief Judge Rowan Wilson gathered experts at a hearing on Monday, Sept. 18, for a hard look at where New York’s civil legal services are falling short.

The meeting, which spanned four hours, heard from 12 representatives from a diverse group, including civil legal service organizations, family court and advocacy groups. Among those invited to participate was New York Bar Association President Richard Lewis.

The panelists, including Chief Administrative Judge Joseph Zayas, Presiding Justice Gerald Whalen, Dianne Renwick of the First Department, Presiding Justice Hector LaSalle of the Second Department, and Justice Christine Clark of the Third Department, delved into the pressing issues facing housing, consumer debt, family law, and disability benefits.

The presentations gave insights into the current state of affairs, highlighting challenges and proposing actionable ideas to help the Office of Court Administration and the New York State Legislature enhance civil legal services throughout New York.

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Chief Judge Wilson acknowledged retired Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s contributions, crediting him for initiating New York’s Commission on Access to Justice.

“No other state parallels New York’s dedication to civil legal services,” Wilson proudly stated. Yet, he did not shy away from conceding that more funding is imperative.

Legal Service Corporation President Ronald Flagg shed light on the alarming fact that the federal budget has only set aside $560 million for civil legal services nationwide, a figure that has stagnated for the past three decades without adjusting for inflation.

However, perhaps one of the most poignant moments came when Supervising Family Court Judge Richard Rivera of Albany County underscored the pressing needs of the Capital Region.

“[The Capital Region] desperately requires lawyers in family court,” Rivera stressed. While Rivera acknowledged the recent salary hike for 18-B attorneys, he emphasized the sustainability challenges they face and the dire need for legislated cost-of-living adjustments.

Responding to Justice LaSalle’s query about non-English-speaking families, Rivera highlighted the acute need for bilingual attorneys. With several bilingual lawyers advancing into the judiciary, the demand for multilingual attorneys has intensified.

For Rivera, the paramount requirement is funding that would ensure robust attorney training and allocate investigator positions to aid litigants in family court.

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