Stop cutting indigent legal services. Please!

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We ask politely. Please stop, Governor Hochul.

Tell your budget division to stop defunding indigent legal services in your annual budget proposal.

Legal services for indigent New Yorkers should not be a bargaining chip in state budget negotiations.

Or as an offset to increasing taxes for New York’s highest income individuals.

In this year’s budget cycle, the state division of budget, which prepares the Governor’s annual budget, made two decisions that could grievously impact New York’s indigent populations by depriving them of important legal services.

First, the budget office raided—we use that term fairly but forcefully—the state’s fund set aside under the Interest On Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLA). Under a law enacted in the 1970s, attorneys use the interest on their clients’ trust accounts to fund the IOLA budget. The state law which created the IOLA fund expressly required that the funds be used solely for indigent legal services. These services include funds to local legal service providers, including JustCause, the Legal Aid Society and Legal Assistance of Western New York in Rochester. These organizations provide important representation to tenants facing eviction, civil fraud cases, immigration assistance and family law assistance.

Fortunately, after an outcry and strong opposition from the state’s legal community, including the state bar and the Monroe County Bar Association, the Governor saw the wisdom of restoring these funds in her 30-day budget amendments. The legal community breathed a sigh of relief. The sigh was premature.

The current administration’s budget takes another potentially even more egregious step in the wrong direction. The governor’s budget cut $234 million in funds from the Indigent Legal Services Fund (ILSF), a state fund that supports legal services across the state for criminal defense as well as representation of parents and children in Family Court. These funds provide a legal safety net for thousands of the poorest New Yorkers who, without legal assistance, would face a range of criminal penalties or disruption to their families with destabilizing consequences that will only exacerbate the spiral of poverty consuming their lives.

We know that the division of budget’s cost cutting moves are not the final word on state spending. We know that the state Legislature values these legal services and will work to restore them to the state budget. These representatives encounter the beneficiaries of the funds on a daily basis. They see, as we do, the substantial benefits of these services to all New Yorkers, including a large portion of African-Americans and Latinos. These services are especially helpful for New Yorkers in rural areas, where legal services are even more difficult to access.

In addition, simply passing the costs of legal services to the counties—the consequence of a failure of state funding—creates a classic unfunded mandate that sends the wrong message that the state is not committed to the notion of equal justice for all, regardless of the county in which our citizens reside.

The Legislature will negotiate to restore these funds. But we know how Albany works. These advocates for preserving legal services for poor New Yorkers will have to trade other important policy objectives to secure the restoration of these funds.

While we understand and appreciate the give-and-take in the state budget process, conscientious New Yorkers should no longer tolerate putting civil and criminal justice legal services on the chopping block and hope that the Legislative branch will find a way rescue them by sacrificing other priorities in the deliberation process.

All New Yorkers, from the Governor on down, should reaffirm the state’s annual commitment to equal justice for all.

Stop holding indigent legal services funds hostage to New York’s free-for-all annual budget bazaar. Please.

Bryan Hetherington
Maureen Polen
Lisa Reagan
Langston McFadden
Julia Cianca
Joan Kohout
Brian Jacek
Richard Dollinger
Eileen Buholtz
Tina Monshipour Foster
Sareer A. (Sandy) Fazili
Stephen Weisbeck
Patricia Marks

The authors are attorneys in Monroe County. The views expressed therein are their own and do not reflect the views of any organizations to which they may belong.

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