Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2005-04-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

In May, NYCLA celebrates the diamond jubilee of its magnificent, Cass Gilbert-designed Home of Law, created to function as the permanent, physical epicenter of an open bar association imbued with a mission to expand access to justice.

In March, NYCLA reaffirmed its dedication to its fundamental mission through a series of measures designed to expand access to justice. Governments on all levels, while too quick to regulate, too often fail to provide funding to support legal services for the poor. Indeed, even in the criminal context, where counsel is mandated, funding for defense services remains woefully inadequate. It is the responsibility of the legal profession to advocate for the reforms necessary to ensure that the promise of equal access to justice is a reality. Thus, NYCLA is advancing a number of initiatives to improve the quality of mandated indigent representation and to provide, for the first time in history, a right to counsel for residential tenants facing eviction in Housing Court.

Civil Gideon: A Right To Counsel In Housing Court

Last October, we hosted a Housing Court Conference to coincide with the 30th anniversary of that Court. One persistent theme emerged from each of the working groups charged with proposing meaningful reform: unrepresented tenants present an enormous challenge to the courts and society. Data showed that while 97 percent of landlords are represented by counsel in eviction proceedings, nearly 90 percent of tenants are unable to afford counsel. This imbalance correlates to higher eviction rates, which, in turn, contribute to unacceptable levels of homelessness.

Most distressing about this situation is that the populations most at risk are the most vulnerable groups: the unemployed, the mentally ill, the sick and the elderly. To redress this problem, NYCLA is participating in a project studying the efficacy and cost effectiveness of establishing a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction who cannot afford to hire their own attorney. Experts have concluded that long-range cost savings may offset the out-of-pocket costs of providing counsel, while the social benefits far outweigh the costs of maintaining the status quo. NYCLA recently adopted a resolution (available at www.nycla.org) endorsing a right to the appointment of free counsel for tenants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. NYCLA also supports efforts to implement this right, at least on a pilot basis, by providing free counsel to the elderly - one of the most at-risk groups in eviction proceedings. Achieving this right could be an important beachhead in the struggle to secure the dream of "civil Gideon."

Indigent Defense

The legal community well knows that NYCLA has carried the torch of reform in the area of indigent defense for more than a decade. Mandated legal services for those ensnared in an array of criminal and family court venues remain starved for adequate funding. In 2001, NYCLA convened a "Joint Bar Association Conference on the Future of Indigent Legal Services." That Conference issued a joint statement supported by 30 bar groups from New York State calling for the establishment of minimum quality standards for all indigent defense providers, as well as mechanisms to ensure structural insulation from political influence and safeguard professional independence in the representation of the indigent.

NYCLA Supports NYSBA Committee On QualityOf Mandated Representation

The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) has empanelled a Special Committee to Ensure the Quality of Mandated Representation, charged with determining how mandated legal representation can satisfy constitutional standards. That Committee, ably chaired by Vincent E. Doyle III, has proposed comprehensive standards that would foster meaningful and effective indigent representation. To further advance the goal of guaranteeing that New York's indigent have access to high-quality representation, NYCLA has submitted a number of important modifications for consideration by the Special Committee. (available at www.nycla.org.) A final version of the Standards is likely to be adopted at NYSBA's April 2 House of Delegates meeting.

NYCLA Testimony Before Kaye Commission

Another important development is the creation, by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, of a Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services, which is holding hearings across New York State. Following Board adoption of a comprehensive statement of principles and recommendations (available at www.nycla.org), NYCLA testified at a March 23 commission hearing held in Ithaca. Drawing on its experience as an advocate for reform, NYCLA proposed a menu of far-reaching reforms that promise to transform mandated indigent defense services from the status of long-neglected stepchild to a fully funded, highly respected component of a criminal justice system.

NYCLA's efforts to achieve reform in the fields of indigent defense and tenants' rights fulfill our institutional mission. As we prepare to celebrate the 75th anniversary of NYCLA's Home of Law, we do so with pride that our advocacy for social justice equals the stately grandeur of Cass Gilbert's marble masterpiece.


Norman Reimer