By David Brand
Unified Court System Chief Judge Janet DiFiore will preside over a statewide public hearing to evaluate the unmet civil legal services needs in New York state.
The hearing will take place Monday at 1 p.m. at the state court of appeals, located at 20 Eagle Street in Albany.
The hearing panel will include Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, First Department Presiding Justice Hon. Rolando T. Acosta, Second Department Presiding Justice Hon. Alan D. Scheinkman, Third Department Presiding Justice Hon. Elizabeth A. Garry, Fourth Department Presiding Judge Hon. Gerald Whalen, Fourth Department and New York State Bar Association President Michael Miller.
Witnesses from all regions of the state will testify about the significance of accessible, publicly funded civil legal services.
Legal services providers say they welcome the hearing as an important step toward ensuring equity in the court system.
"We are pleased that we continue to have the cooperation of the New York State Unified court system in confronting the the very serious lack of legal assistance available to our low-income community facing serious issues of civil law involving basic human needs," said Mark Weliky, the executive director of the Queens Volunteer Lawyers' Project. "We applaud Chief Judge DiFiore who has been a great advocate for the equal access of justice for all continuing the work done before by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann."
New York Legal Assistance Group President and Attorney-in-Charge Beth Goldman also praised the hearing.
“NYLAG applauds Chief Judge DiFiore for her continued commitment to prioritizing the civil legal needs of low-income New Yorkers," Goldman said. "By holding this hearing to evaluate the continuing unmet civil legal services needs in New York, she keeps the issue in the public eye and allows organizations on the ground to highlight those gaps in service that must be filled to ensure that all New Yorkers have the access to justice they deserve.”
Chief Judge DiFiore will report information obtained at the hearing and on the continuing work of the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice to the state legislature. the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice aims to expand access to civil legal services for low-income New Yorkers.
The testimony gathered at the hearing will serve to inform the commission’s future efforts to ensure that every New Yorker, regardless of background or economic status, has access to civil legal services when basic human needs are at stake, the UCS said.
In 2017, the commission visited four representative regions of New York, including Queens County, the most diverse county in the state — and the nation — for a series of listening sessions on closing the “justice gap.”
The listening session included voices from various legal service providers like Adhikaar, HerJustice, Legal Hand, Margert Community Corporation, New York City Elder Abuse Center Sunnyside Community Services and Youth Represent and the St. John’s Elder Law Clinic.
The stakeholders determined that Queens’ largest legal gaps are in housing, family law, and immigration. Major issues were related to awareness and access to information among the borough’s diverse communities.
“The diverse population requires an increased number of well-trained translators and interpreters,” the reported stated. “Community members are largely unaware of their rights.”
“Community members as well as the stakeholders at the listening sessions were often not aware of all available resources — legal and non-legal,” the report found. “Expansion of the Court Navigator Program beyond Housing Court could help narrow the access-to-justice gap in Queens.”
The report authors also called for judges and court staff to be “educated about what services and resources are available to unrepresented litigants and suggest that they seek assistance.”