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

2008-01-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

- John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

I recently conducted a Google news search for the phrase "subprime mortgage crisis." The search produced 15,127 results. The "subprime mortgage crisis" has had a huge impact in New York City, especially within our most vulnerable communities. Andrew Scherer, Executive Director and President of Legal Services for New York City, told me that "virtually all" of the clients represented in Legal Services' foreclosure project had obtained subprime mortgages. Those most at risk of losing their homes are residents from communities of color, including senior citizens. This "crisis" highlights the need for a right to counsel to protect our most vulnerable citizens facing critical civil legal issues, such as eviction, foreclosure and ejectment proceedings.

NYCLA was one of the first bar associations to join as a co-sponsor of an ABA resolution in 2006 urging "state, territorial and federal jurisdictions to provide counsel as a matter of right where basic human needs are at stake, such as those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody as determined by each jurisdiction." In March 2005, the NYCLA Board of Directors adopted a resolution endorsing "as a matter of principle, a right to the appointment of free counsel for all tenants in Housing Court unable to afford counsel" and supporting "initiatives to establish a right to the appointment of free counsel for all tenants in Housing Court, including initiatives that recognize the right for particularly vulnerable sub-populations of tenants such as the elderly."

In 2006, NYCLA's Board adopted the "Report on Right to Counsel in Housing Court," produced by its Task Force on the Housing Court, co-chaired by Hon. Marcy S. Friedman and Professor Paula Galowitz. A key recommendation contained in the report is that NYCLA continue to aggressively take advantage of opportunities that arise to use its influence to advance the principle of a civil right to counsel. Such an opportunity arose in November with the introduction of a right to counsel bill in the New York City Council. The bill would provide free legal counsel to elderly, low-income residents facing eviction, ejectment or foreclosure. NYCLA issued a strong statement in support of the bill.

NYCLA will continue its leadership role in this area, including following the recommendations in its 2006 report:

• Promote organized bar support for a civil right to counsel. NYCLA should continue to actively promote the support for a right to counsel by the organized bar by taking advantage of opportunities that arise and creating opportunities for other local bar associations, the New York State Bar Association and the ABA.

• Promote adequate state funding for civil legal services.NYCLA should take an active leadership role in promoting New York State funding for civil legal services. New York has yet to make a meaningful commitment to justice by creating a permanent funding stream for civil legal services.

• Urge exercise of judicial power to assign counsel. NYCLA should urge Housing Court and Civil Court Judges to use their powers under Article 11 of the Civil Practice Law Rules (CPLR) to assign counsel in appropriate cases. CPLR Article 11 (New York's "poor person" statute) gives judges the power to assign counsel in a proper case for an individual who is found to be indigent. This provision is rarely used. However, the failure to assign counsel in an appropriate case can be a violation of the obligation to exercise appropriate discretion under Article 11 of the CPLR. The active exercise of the power to assign counsel in appropriate cases will promote adoption of long-term funded solutions to the implementation of a right to counsel.


Catherine A. Christian