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December 9, 2009

STATE BAR ASSOCIATION RENEWS THE CALL FOR SUPPORT OF CRITICAL CIVIL LEGAL SERVICES FUNDING

Testifying Before Senate Committees, President-Elect Stephen P. Younger Urges Legislature to Take Needed Steps to Ensure Access to Justice for Indigent New Yorkers

New York State Bar Association President-Elect Stephen P. Younger (Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP of New York City) today reaffirmed the State Bar's commitment to ensuring access to justice for indigent New Yorkers and called on the State Legislature to provide the necessary resources for the state's civil legal services programs.

Testifying at a Senate public hearing convened to focus on the Interest on Lawyers Account (IOLA) and the future of civil legal services, Younger, who also serves as Co-Chair of the President's Committee on Access to Justice of the State Bar, emphasized the critical need to enhance access to the civil justice system for those unable to afford legal representation. The hearing was held at New York University Law School by the Senate's Standing Committees on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, Judiciary, Codes, and Veterans and Military Affairs.

"For New Yorkers in crisis, the concept of '"equal justice for all"' is nothing but a hollow phrase, unless the government fulfills its duty to provide access to lawyers for those individuals-the poor, the victims of abuse and neglect, children, and the elderly-who are unable to afford the cost of enforcing their rights in our civil justice system," Younger told senators.

"Numerous reports at both the federal level and the state level have established that the essential legal needs of the majority -- indeed as many as 85% -- of low-income New Yorkers are not being met under the current funding levels.  This is an alarming statistic that simply cannot be ignored," Younger continued.

Younger also noted that the downturn in the economy has had a devastating impact on IOLA revenues that support civil legal services programs. IOLA has suffered a dramatic loss of revenue due to the decline in interest rates and fewer real estate transactions in the depressed housing market. According to a report issued in 2008, the IOLA Fund awarded grants totaling $25 million that year. Grants for the 2010-11 fiscal year are expected to fall to just $6.5 million.

Younger called upon the State Legislature to approve the recently proposed $15-million appropriation to the judiciary budget that would help address the projected loss of IOLA revenues. Last September, State Bar President Michael E. Getnick (Getnick Livingston Atkinson & Priore, LLP of Utica and of counsel to Getnick & Getnick of New York City) wrote to Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau in support of this same measure -so that "providers of civil legal services could continue to provide much needed legal assistance at a critical time for many needy New Yorkers."

Additionally, Younger urged the senators to

1. Create a permanent Access to Justice Fund in the state budget;
2. Identify a state level agency to assume responsibility for administration and oversight of the Fund; and
3. Work with the legal community to ensure that access to justice receives support, attention and priority.

The creation of a dedicated fund promoting access to the civil justice system for the indigent has long been a top priority of the State Bar.

"As you face the challenges of an extreme budget crisis, it is important to highlight that fundamental individual rights are now at stake. We should not lose sight of the fact that access to justice for all people is a basic obligation of our society. The current financial condition of providers and the increasing needs of the poor for legal services require that no further cuts be imposed on legal services programs. I want to thank Senators Sampson and Hassell-Thompson, as well as all of the committee members, for organizing public hearings to focus attention on these very important issues," Younger concluded.

To view a full copy of President-Elect Younger's testimony, please visit http://www.nysba.org/YoungerIOLATestimony.

Founded in 1876, the 76,000-member New York State Bar Association is the official statewide organization of lawyers in New York and the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. The State Bar's programs and activities have continuously served the public and improved the justice system for more than 130 years.

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