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Chief judge leads hearing on civil legal services held at Albany’s Court of Appeals

Sep. 20, 2023 By Ethan Marshall

A panel at Albany’s Court of Appeals, led by Chief Judge Rowan Wilson, listened to testimonies on Sept. 18 from 12 representatives of civil legal service organizations, family court and advocacy groups. New York Bar Association President Richard Lewis was among those asked to take part in the panel.

The hearing was meant to examine civil legal service needs of New Yorkers that have not been met. This includes housing, consumer debt, family law and disability benefits. Some of the other panelists included Chief Administrative Judge Joseph Zayas, Presiding Justice Gerald Whalen and Dianne Renwick of the First Department, Presiding Justice Hector LaSalle of the Second Department and Justice Christine Clark of the Third Department.

Throughout the four-hour panel, civil legal service providers updated the court on the current state of services for those in need while also proposing ideas on how the Office of Court Administration and the New York State Legislature could improve civil legal services across the state.

Chief Judge Wilson praised his predecessor, retired Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, for creating New York’s Commission on Access to Justice. “No other state comes close to New York’s commitment to civil legal services,” Wilson said. However, he also admitted that more funding from the legislature is needed.

According to Legal Service Corporation President Ronald Flagg, the federal budget only allocates $560 million for civil legal services across the country. He said the figure has changed very little over the last 30 years and it is not keeping with inflation.

“[The Capital Region] is in desperate need of lawyers in family court,” Supervising Family Court Judge Richard Rivera of Albany County said at the hearing. While Rivera said the recent pay increase for 18-B attorneys was welcomed and he’s seen some attorneys return to the court, he also said these lawyers still can’t sustain a full-time practice from assigned counsel cases and are in need of cost of living increases written into law. Chief Judge Wilson and Judge Zayas said they viewed family court as the first priority.

When asked by Justice LaSalle about the needs of families with a first language other than English, Rivera emphasized the need for bilingual attorneys. With several bilingual attorneys moved into the judiciary, there is a greater need for multilingual attorneys. Rivera said his greatest need was funding for attorney training and investigator positions to work for litigants in family court.

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