New York State Bar Association President Seymour W. James, Jr. today urged state lawmakers to adequately fund the state Judiciary and provide that "all people, including the weak, poor and unpopular as well as those who rely on the courts to resolve their business and commercial disputes," have access to the courts.
"The effective operation of the court system is crucial to maintaining an orderly society," James said in testimony submitted to the fiscal committees of the state Legislature.
James (The Legal Aid Society in New York City) endorsed Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's no-growth budget plan for the Unified Court System, which he described as "one of the largest and busiest court systems, not only in the United States, but in the world."
• Court Operations:
"The Judiciary's budget request reflects a balancing act between the constitutional duty to ensure access to justice for all New Yorkers and the obligation to reduce costs wherever possible," James said.
He noted the proposed Judiciary budget request (excluding General State Charges) for the coming fiscal year totals $1.76 billion, a decrease of $212,013, or 0.012 percent. This restraint, James added, led Governor Andrew Cuomo to comment, "I commend the Judiciary for their continuing efforts to meet the state's fiscal goals by rethinking how the courts do business, and for their continuing partnership with the Executive Branch."
• Civil Legal Services
Each year, more than 2.3 million New Yorkers attempt to navigate the complex civil justice system without a lawyer, James said. Many are low-income individuals who face potentially life-altering events dealing with child custody, domestic violence, health care, eviction, foreclosure and consumer debt.
"Unfortunately, the need for civil legal services continues to outpace the available resources," James said. He praised Judge Lippman for proposing a $40 million appropriation for civil legal services, a $15 million increase over the current fiscal year.
• Interest on Lawyer Account Fund
The economic downturn has eroded the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund (the IOLA Fund), a source of grants for organizations that provide civil legal services to the poor.
The fund is financed with the interest on monies that attorneys hold for clients in interest-bearing accounts. Low interest rates and sluggish real estate sales have shrunk the fund's revenues. James asked legislators, as they have done for the past three years, to approve $15 million for the IOLA Fund to offset declining revenue.
"We thank you and your colleagues in the Legislature for your recognition of the importance of this funding," he said.
• Long-term Funding for Legal Civil Services
James called for the creation of a permanent Access to Justice Fund, reiterating the State Bar Association's position that "it is the obligation of the state to provide a stable funding mechanism for civil legal services."
Indigent Criminal Defense
Under the state and federal constitutions, an indigent person accused of a crime has a right to effective legal counsel.
"It is our belief that, in order to fulfill the responsibilities of the [Office of Indigent Legal Services], the Executive Budget should appropriate $3 million for the operation of the office and $91 million for distribution via the aid-to-localities budget," James said, adding the State Bar looks forward to working with the Governor and Legislature "to further the cause of making the constitutional guarantee of effective assistance of counsel a reality for all."
Prisoners' Legal Services
In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states are obliged to provide convicted felons with adequate, effective and meaningful access to the courts.
Founded in 1976 after the Attica prison riot, "Prisoners' Legal Services is-and should remain-a vital, integral part of the state's criminal justice system and critical component of public safety," said James, who called for adequate funding.
In concluding his remarks, James told legislators, "We urge you to remain committed to protecting access to justice and to ensuring the public's trust and confidence in our justice system." A copy of his testimony is available at http://www.nysba.org/SWJTestimony2-6-13.
The 76,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.
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