New York State Bar Association President David M. Schraver today urged state lawmakers to approve the proposed Judiciary budget to help alleviate logjams now faced by New Yorkers seeking their “day in court.”
“The Judiciary’s budget request reflects a balancing between constitutional duty to ensure access to justice for all New Yorkers and the obligation to reduce costs wherever possible,” Schraver said in testimony submitted to the fiscal committees of the state Legislature.
“The State Bar strongly supports the Judiciary’s 2014-15 budget request, in large part, because it would end the 4:30 p.m. closing time for courtrooms, enhance courtroom security, partially restore the functioning of the offices of the clerks, and, in general, rebuild necessary components of the court system’s workforce,” said Schraver of Rochester (Nixon Peabody).
In recent years, a reduction in the workforce has resulted in insufficient court officers and clerks to fully staff all courtrooms. Inadequate security has become a major concern. Trials often are cut off in the midst of testimony—delaying the completion of cases—because of the additional cost to continue after 4:30 p.m.
Delays in resolving cases involving children are compounded by a shortage of Family Court judges.
“Over the past three decades, the caseload of the Family Court has nearly doubled, from 366,000 files a year to more than 698,000 at the end of 2013,” he noted. “Despite this dramatic growth in the work of the Family Court, few new Family Court judgeships have been established.”
Family Court has jurisdiction over child custody and visitation, child and spousal adoptions, determining paternity of children, family violence and abuse, juvenile delinquency matters, termination of parental rights petitions and foster care reviews.
“The State Bar strongly supports the Chief Judge’s proposal to increase the number of Family Court judges,” Schraver said.
“Indeed, this proposal is among our legislative priorities for 2014. The lack of judges to hear the overwhelming number of cases involving the safety and well-being of children results in long delays, piecemeal trials, uneven access to justice and a public perception that the forum is ineffectual and unworthy of community confidence.”
The Family Court delays, he added, can have profound effect on children.
“A child, whose family has problems, brings his or her problems with him or her on the bus and into the classroom. The problems surface on the playground and at childcare. One child’s problems affect all of the children around him or her.”
Funding Civil Legal Services
Funding of civil legal services for the poor, “has been among the State Bar’s highest priorities for many years,” Schraver said. “Unfortunately, the need for civil legal services continues to outpace the available resources.”
In testifying in support of $55 million for civil legal services proposed in the Judiciary budget, Schraver said, “New York must be able to provide a steady source of funding targeted to the ‘essentials of life’—housing, preventing or escaping domestic violence, access to health care—reliably and quickly.”
In addition, he asked the Legislature to again allocate $15 million to the Interest on Lawyers Account (“IOLA” Fund), a source for grants for organizations providing civil legal services to the poor. For the past four years, a $15 million annual appropriation to the IOLA fund has helped offset declining revenue to the fund as a result of low interest rates and a decline in real estate transactions.
“We again applaud the Judiciary for including this item in its current proposal and we thank you and your colleagues in the Legislature for your recognition of the importance of this funding. We strongly urge you to continue your support for this appropriation,” Schraver said.
The state and federal constitutions guarantee that criminals defendants have a right to effective counsel even if they cannot afford an attorney.
The Legislature should approve the funding necessary to expand the Office of Indigent Legal Services and maximize funds appropriated from the Indigent Legal Services Funds to county governments, Schraver said.
“We look forward to working with the Governor, the Assembly and the Senate to ensure that the Executive Budget appropriates sufficient funds to further the cause of making the constitutional guarantee of effective assistance of counsel a reality for all,” he said.
In addition, Schraver commended Governor Andrew Cuomo for including funding for Prisoners Legal Services in the proposed Executive Budget.
“PLS helps to provide equal access to our system of justice for those who are incarcerated and would otherwise be deprived of such access. The program reflects one of the State Bar’s highest priorities—the concept that the impoverished or unpopular individual should be able to invoke the power of the world’s most advanced legal system to protect his or her rights,” Schraver said.
The 75,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.
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