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Cutbacks Could Leave Thousands of New Yorkers Alone in Court

February 24, 2009

Albany, NY — The courtroom soon could become a more lonely place for many New Yorkers, if budget cutbacks leave hundreds of thousands of people without the lawyers once provided by the state for civil cases. These low-income New Yorkers face complex legal issues in cases ranging from fighting evictions to collecting back child support. Today, lawmakers are examining how those cuts could affect their access to justice.

Helene Weinstein (D-41st Dist) chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee. She says only two years ago New York budgeted $16 million for civil legal services. Now, with the state battling a major deficit, Gov. Paterson has allocated only $1 million to represent poor people all across the state. Weinstein says that means lots of New Yorkers will be headed to court without legal counsel.

"These legal services programs have generated millions of dollars in savings. Now, hundreds of thousands of people will appear by themselves in court or forego court action altogether."

Weinstein says it's cheaper to fight an illegal eviction than to house a homeless family, adding that legal services programs actually save the state two to three dollars for every dollar spent. However, the governor centends that with some state workers facing layoffs, the cuts to legal services are needed to bring the state's $121 billion budget into balance.

The current recession makes it all the more important that New Yorkers in all income brackets have equal access to a lawyer, according to Anne Erickson, CEO of the Empire Justice Center.

"When you are being evicted from your home, or losing your home to foreclosure, or being denied critical benefits that will keep a roof over your head and food on the table — you are up against very complicated legal systems, and yet you have no right to counsel."

A joint legislative committee meets this morning at 10 a.m. to consider New Yorkers' access to both civil and criminal representation.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NY