In a passionate address on October 24 at the NYU School of Law, Jonathan Lippman ’68, chief judge of the State of New York, advocated a major push to support the provision of civil legal services for the poor.

Lippman called out “one of the most daunting challenges confronting our justice system: the crisis in civil legal aid for the poor, and what the judiciary and the profession here in New York and around the country can do to foster access to justice at a time of economic hardship for our nation and the state judiciary.”

With the most recent state budget cutting $170 million from the judiciary’s portion, funding for civil legal services is on the line, Lippman said, just when it’s needed most: “When families can’t pay their mortgages or rent, when people default on credit card payments or child support obligations, when frustrations over household finances boil over into domestic violence, it all ends up as a matter on a court docket. State courts are truly the emergency room for the ills of society, and our caseloads are proof of that fact.... Activity in our courts is countercyclical. When the economy goes south, the need for legal services rises.”
Jonathan Lippman, Helaine Barnett, and Alan LevineFor the 2.3 million litigants who appeared in state courts last year without representation, he said, the economic crisis creates a vicious cycle. Federal funding to the Legal Services Corporation, the nonprofit corporation established by Congress to distribute money to civil legal service providers nationwide, is being threatened. At the state level, the New York State Interest on Lawyer Account Fund (IOLA), which generates interest used to fund civil legal services from client money that attorneys place in escrow accounts, has suffered greatly from the economic downturn. IOLA revenues have plunged from $32 million in 2008 to $6.5 million this year.

While the court system has opened more offices for self-representation help and expanded pro bono programs, Lippman argued that such efforts were insufficient. “It is simply not enough,” he said, “to rely on the wonderful good works of the Bar and on a patchwork of unreliable revenue streams that constantly fluctuate with the ups and downs of the economy and the political winds of the day.... The bottom line is that access to justice is one of the most fundamental obligations we owe our citizenry, and it must be treated as such.”

In May 2010, Lippman created the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York. He appointed as chair Helaine Barnett ’64, former president of the Legal Services Corporation. The task force held four public hearings across the state to gauge the extent of the need for legal services. It has also put forth various efficiency proposals that would allow more people to receive legal help.

During a panel discussion following Lippman’s keynote, Barnett laid out in stark numbers the funding challenges faced by the state and by legal service providers. But she also pointed out that, thanks to Lippman’s efforts, New York has the highest dollar amount of state funding for civil legal services of any state. California, she noted, had its own public hearings scheduled for later this year as it seeks to follow the New York model.

“From a national perspective, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is a trailblazer in new funding models for the civil justice system,” said Barnett. “He is in the vanguard of chief justices trying to fulfill our pledge of equal access to justice.”

Panelist Alan Levine ’73, a partner at Cooley and former board chair of the Legal Aid Society, decried the dearth of New York lawyers taking on pro bono cases: “We understand the need more than anyone, and we also should appreciate how much more effectively the court system would work with more represented, not unrepresented, poor people.”

Also on the panel was Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, an adjunct professor at NYU Law. He assembled a study group of 50 lawyers to tackle the issues of both quality and lack of representation in federal immigration cases, whose numbers have soared in a post-9/11 world. With Dean Richard Revesz, he is working to create an immigration representation fellowship program at NYU Law. Only 40 percent of defendants nationally are represented, he said.

“The state gives us a monopoly on the administration of justice,” said Katzmann, “and surely that must mean that, in return, each of us has some responsibility to those in society who are less fortunate.... What we’re talking about in these cases is whether families can stay together, whether people will be torn from their families.”

Lippman argued that the money for civil legal services should come from the state’s general fund to ensure the stability of the system, rather than relying on uncertain sources like IOLA. “Access to justice is not a luxury, affordable only in good times,” he said. “It is a bedrock principle in a society based on the rule of law and transcends the vagaries of our economy.”

He also asserted that it was a smart financial investment, given the task force’s finding that New York receives a $5 return on each $1 spent on civil legal aid. State and local government, he said, saves millions of dollars in averted social services costs stemming from credit defaults, evictions, homelessness, and foster care.

“We cannot afford not to fund civil legal services for the well-being and stability of our society and our institutions,” said Lippman, “for the ethical underpinning of our democratic way of life, for the financial bottom line of our state and local governments, and for our constitutional and professional duty to foster equal justice for all.... The rule of law, which is the bedrock of our profession and our society, loses its meaning when the protection of our laws is available only to those who can afford it.”

The event was sponsored by the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy and the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program.

Watch the full video of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's keynote (38 min):