In 1964, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy challenged the legal community “to enlist our skills and ourselves in the unconditional war on poverty to which President Johnson has summoned us all.” He spoke shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court established a right to counsel for criminal defendants in Gideon v. Wainright. Kennedy said: “We have secured the acquittal of an indigent person—only to abandon him to eviction notices, wage attachments, repossession of goods and termination of welfare benefits.”
Fifty years later, while the effectiveness of the War on Poverty is being debated, one thing is unassailable: civil legal services have become an essential part of the fight for equal justice and against poverty. Legal services help our clients get and keep the bare essentials of food, shelter, economic security and safety; eliminate barriers to education, employment and citizenship; and achieve racial, social and economic justice.
While the efforts of the legal community have certainly not eliminated poverty, they mitigate its impact every day. Without our work, more low-income New Yorkers would be homeless, victimized by domestic violence, left without funds to eat or pay bills, and held at the mercy of predatory lenders and consumer scams. But we only have the resources to help a small fraction of the people who need legal services to protect their rights. If New York City’s new mayor wants to find ways to combat social and economic inequality in 2014 and beyond, there are vibrant legal services programs and partnerships that, if expanded, can make a big difference in that fight. Our own program, Legal Services NYC, has long understood the power of those partnerships to fight poverty.
Starting in the late 1980s, we partnered with The Legal Aid Society, the New York City Human Resources Administration, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to create eviction prevention programs for families, seniors and those who live in Single Room Occupancy hotels. For more than 25 years, these programs have funded housing advocates in legal services programs throughout the city who have prevented evictions and homelessness. Without our work, hundreds of thousands of additional families would have been knocking on the doors of the city’s beleaguered shelter system.
Also in the late 1980s, we worked with The Empire Justice Center, other legal services providers, and the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance to create the statewide Disability Advocacy Project. Advocates funded through this project help thousands of disabled children and adults every year to get the federal disability assistance they need, increasing and stabilizing their incomes, and returning millions of dollars to low-income communities.
For many years, we have joined Safe Horizons, Legal Aid and numerous community-based social service providers to deliver legal and social services that protect and empower those experiencing domestic violence to achieve safety, economic stability, and change their lives. The Domestic Violence Empowerment Initiative (DOVE) has been instrumental in helping survivors and their children break the cycle of violence that so often keeps women and children in poverty.
Since 2005, we have joined with the National Employment Law Project, the Minkwon Center for Community Action, Legal Aid, MFY Legal Services, and the private law firm Raff & Becker to provide representation on Unemployment Insurance (UI) appeals. Our advocates have obtained millions of dollars in UI benefits for those whose applications were illegally denied. It is well documented that when those who become unemployed lose all income, they often drop out of the economy and into a cycle of chronic unemployment and poverty. Our work is critical in preventing that downward spiral.
With the largest foreclosure prevention advocacy team in the country, Legal Services NYC has helped to create and lead a network of lawyers, paralegals and mortgage counselors who have fought the tidal wave of foreclosures threatening homeowners and their communities. Through our partnership with the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, mortgage counselors, and other legal services providers throughout the state, we aggressively litigate scores of cases to prevent foreclosures and develop foreclosure law; provide litigation, training, and management support to foreclosure prevention legal services and mortgage counseling programs; and work with the Office of Court Administration to improve the foreclosure settlement process.
For more than three decades, civil legal services programs have partnered with pro bono lawyers and non-profit organizations in low-income neighborhoods to produce new and rehabilitated affordable housing, expand health care services, provide more childcare, and create minority and community-owned businesses. This work has created hundreds of jobs that pay living wages, one of the most important ways to lift people out of poverty. The Lawyers’ Alliance, Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A (a former program of Legal Services NYC), Urban Justice Center, Legal Aid and clinics at various law schools all have vibrant programs that engage in this important transactional work.
On Veterans Day 2011, we launched the Veterans Justice Project to provide civil legal services to low-income veterans in all five boroughs of New York City. With funding from the Robin Hood Foundation and the State Assembly, we partner with the Urban Justice Center, the City Bar Justice Center, and numerous veterans’ health and social services facilities to help prevent homelessness and increase incomes for thousands of veterans, service members, and their families.
Low-income immigrant New Yorkers face particularly daunting problems, often exacerbated by language challenges. With funding from the New York City Council and State Assembly, we have worked with Legal Aid, Make the Road, the New York Immigration Coalition, and numerous other community-based advocacy and service organizations to provide thousands of immigrant New Yorkers with legal services that allow them to remain in the country without fear of deportation, finish school and achieve economic stability and a pathway to citizenship.
As we did after 9/11, the civil legal services community—with our partners in the private bar and private foundations—mobilized vast resources when Superstorm Sandy struck, delivering life-saving legal services to help storm victims access food stamps, shelter, disaster unemployment benefits and emergency FEMA benefits. More than a year after the storm, lawyers continue to represent tenants and homeowners to restore essential services and recover insurance claims so they can return to and rebuild their homes.
Finally, since 2002 Law Help New York, managed by Pro Bono Net and a consortium of civil legal services programs throughout the state, has provided online legal resources and referral information in more than 30 languages. LawHelp/NY (http://www.lawhelpny.org/) is the largest website of its kind in the country, and annually helps hundreds of thousands of low-income New Yorkers navigate the court system, solve legal problems and find legal services when they need them.
Unfortunately, fewer than one in five low-income New Yorkers who need legal help can get it due to insufficient funding. The Chief Judge’s Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services recently stated that, at current funding levels, “at best, 20 percent of low-income New Yorkers have a lawyer to assist them in responding to matters involving life’s most basic necessities.”
Fortunately, in the face of severe federal and other funding cuts and the skyrocketing need for help caused by the economic crisis, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has dedicated himself to the fight for equal justice. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2012, Lippman set aside $27.5 million in the OCA budget for civil legal services; that allocation increased to $55 million by FY 2014, and in FY 2015 he has proposed a further increase.
We are fortunate to have a chief judge who leads the nation in dedicating critically-needed funds to secure justice for all New Yorkers, and we now have a mayor who is determined to address inequality in our city. On the 50th anniversary of War on Poverty, there is no better time to renew our determination and our efforts.
Raun J. Rasmussen is executive director of Legal Services NYC.