Providing legal services for low-income New Yorkers in civil cases boosts the economy by speeding court dockets, keeping people in their homes and ensuring they get the federal benefits they're due, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Tuesday.
At a hearing called by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, the comptroller cited "plentiful" evidence of the monetary return that includes federal Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment and disability payments, tax credits and veterans' benefits. Much of that "represents a return of our fair share of the federal taxes we pay," he said.
"The reality is that a vast number of low-income New Yorkers cannot afford a lawyer," DiNapoli said.
He noted that Lippman put $55 million in this year's judiciary budget to help support legal services while judicial officials have taken steps to increase pro bono work by lawyers.
Lippman plans to hold a series of hearings this year and report to the Legislature about funding that's available and what's needed. He's held similar hearings before and established a task force to examine it, cited a previous estimate that only 20 percent of the need was being met but added that progress has been made.
"I think we've narrowed the gap," Lippman said after Tuesday's hearing. "We have at the very least kept up with a miserable economy."
He emphasized that "a crisis" of a large unmet need remains, resulting in human calamities that can cost the state a lot of money for prisons and social services. "In so many ways when you save people from falling off the cliff, New York benefits," he said.
This year, Lippman and other court administrators began requiring 280,000 New York-registered attorneys to report their pro bono work when they renew their registrations every two years, also raising the pro bono goal for everyone to 50 hours yearly. He said that reporting will help them gauge how much free service is actually being done.
Administrators agreed last year, after attorneys raised privacy concerns, to keep the information confidential for the first two years. Lippman said Tuesday that it should be public after that.
Statewide, half of New Yorkers facing home foreclosures are attending required settlement conferences without attorneys, DiNapoli said. Few have lawyers in the consumer credit cases filed in New York City, in rural, suburban and urban child support cases and "the overwhelming majority" of tenants in eviction cases in all four of the state's judicial districts, he said.
He cited the "downstream societal and financial impacts" like homelessness and domestic violence and costs associated with lost workdays, hospitalization and mental health treatment.
Legal Services Corp. grant funding has been cut from almost $379 million two years ago to $316 million currently, and those grants now pay less than 27 percent of the funding for New York's nonprofit legal aid programs, DiNapoli said. "The trend is not good."