By Amaris Elliott-Engel
Of the Legal Staff
Civil legal aid for the poor is in crisis, Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the state of New York, told the attendees of the Philadelphia Bar Association quarterly luncheon today.
Eight of 10 people looking to be represented by the civil legal services are turned away for the lack of attorneys in New York and Pennsylvania, Lippman said.
Lippman said that civil legal services should no longer be mostly funded by interest earned on attorney trust accounts or court fees. He said those revenue streams are sensitive to the economy. While it may be "going directly into the eye of a hurricane" to argue for funding civil legal services through state general funds in a time of state budget deficits, he said that "access to justice is one of the fundamental obligations we owe our citizenry."
"I have become convinced that the totality of what we are doing in New York and as far as I can see around the county is simply not enough," Lippman said. "It's simply not enough to rely on the wonderful good works of the bar and a patchwork of unreliable revenue streams that fluctuate up and down."
Attorneys should be provided as a matter of course in cases involving the "essentials of life," Lippman said, such as family court cases or domestic violence cases.
With Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille looking on while Lippman gave his speech, Lippman said that Pennsylvania and New York are facing similar problems of reduced budgets for the state courts and reduced funding for civil legal aid.
New York's courts were cut $70 million above what Lippman said he had voluntered to cut, "the result being 430 layoffs of court personnel in the last two months. I know the situation here is equally difficult with Pennsylvania facing a $4 billion deficit."