New York state legal aid funds doubled to $25 million

ALBANY, N.Y., June 6 (Reuters) – Nonprofit groups that provide free civil legal services to low-income people in New York have received twice the state funding they were awarded last year, state court administrators said.

At the request of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, state lawmakers this year doubled to $25 million total funding for the programs, court administrators announced on Tuesday. The programs have lost millions of dollars in federal and local funding over the last few years.

The Legal Aid Society of New York and Legal Services NYC each received $3.1 million, the largest of the 62 grants awarded statewide, up from about $1.5 million last year.

Raun Rasmussen, the executive director of Legal Services NYC, said the group will lose more than $7.5 million in federal funding by 2014 and that the New York City council has cut funding in half since 2008.

“Add all those reductions together, and the picture is pretty bleak for legal service providers around the state,” he said, “which is why this state money is really a lifesaver for our clients.”

About 80 percent of low-income civil litigants in New York do not have legal representation, according to the state’s Office of Court Administration. Lippman has called the situation a “crisis” and has pushed for additional funding that would cover “the basic necessities of life” — employment, housing, family issues and government benefits — for all New Yorkers.

“The courts are the emergency rooms of our society. The most intractable social problems find their way to our doors in great and increasing numbers,” Lippman said in a speech on May 1. “And more and more of the people who come into our courts each day are forced to do so without a lawyer.”

Six groups received more than $1 million this year, including the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, the New York Legal Assistance Group and Legal Services of the Hudson Valley.

Last year, court administrators awarded $12.5 million in grants to 56 groups. According to Lippman’s Task Force on Civil Legal Services, those grants were used to help more than 50,000 families, including over 16,000 with housing issues and almost 17,000 in cases related to subsistence income (wages, disability and government benefits). More than 12,000 clients sought legal assistance for family matters, including custody and domestic violence, and about 5,000 needed help securing access to healthcare and education.

The New York City Bar Association’s Justice Center, whose grant doubled to $288,000 this year, uses the money for programs that aid veterans, homeless people and poor people facing foreclosure, among others. The group also operates a telephone hotline that connects people with attorneys and paralegals who answer simple legal questions.

Lynn Kelly, the executive director of the center, said the new money would allow the group to hire additional staff for the hotline, which was able to answer less than 60 percent of the nearly 18,000 calls it received over the last year. The money may also allow the group to expand a program that helps low-income people file for bankruptcy.

“We try not to re-create what the legal service community already does well,” Kelly said. Instead, “we try to fill in the gaps in service delivery.”

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