Published June 19, 2014
The notion of a “civil Gideon”- a guarantee of access to counsel for poor litigants in civil proceedings - took center stage at SUNY Buffalo Law School with a series of discussions on Oct. 3.
New York State’s chief judge, Hon. Jonathan Lippman, has made “access to justice” a centerpiece of his tenure, and the day began as Lippman and others heard testimony in the Francis M. Letro Courtroom about the need for civil legal services and ways in which judges, law school and practitioners are trying to meet that need.
“These hearings come out of a crisis in our state,” Lippman said. “At best we are meeting 20 percent of the civil legal services needs of our people. We know that in the judiciary profession if we don’t take the lead in this area, no one else will. Everyone deserves their day in court. That is what this is all about.”
Among the 11 interested parties invited to give testimony at the hearing were Law School Dean Makau W. Mutua and third-year students Emily A. Dinsmore and Kerisha Hawthorne. Lippman listened with interest. Of the dean he said, “Makau Mutua has been such a positive force in our state in terms of justice for all and equal justice, and has been such a great leader for this law school. He is a great asset to the legal education community and this law school.” In response to the students’ remarks he said, “I find your testimony very moving and very reassuring in terms of the future of our profession and the quality of our law students here at UB and around the state. You get it what it means to be a lawyer. We have no doubt that the students at UB will continue to do their pro bono work when they go out into the profession.”
Others giving testimony included local elected officials, legal services clients, business and community leaders, and a state Supreme Court justice.
The theme continued with an evening event titled “Why We Need a Right to Counsel in Civil Matters Where Basic Human Needs Are at Stake.” It began with a panel discussion, webcast statewide from Albany,that started with taped remarks from the chief judge. Some highlights:
Lippman: “We all have an obligation as members of the legal profession to ensure justice is done in our society. If we fail in this most basic of our obligations, we become easy prey for those who seek to undermine the justice system and the rule of law. The rule of law, the very basis of our society, loses its meaning when the protection of laws is available only to those who can afford it.”
John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel: “Expecting a litigant to represent himself is basically like asking someone who goes to the emergency room for surgery to do surgery on themselves. They could, but it probably wouldn’t come out very well. … We need people to believe in our judicial system. Many people who go through these proceedings without counsel don’t think the system works for them.”
Bryan Hetherington, chief counsel for the Empire Justice Center: “The Constitution says our government was created to establish justice. The system is set up to have advocates on both sides and then reach a just result. When both sides are not represented, a less just result will occur. I don’t think anyone should suffer a less just result because there aren’t enough lawyers for everybody.”
Martha Davis, a professor at Northeastern University Law School: “In international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands for the principle that there is a right to counsel in civil cases. The U.S. is a party to this treaty. This is our law that we’ve ratified.”
Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for the New York City courts and director of the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program: “We’re still scratching the surface of the need. Not only do we have a problem meeting the needs of indigent people, we have a serious problem with the working poor, a serious justice gap in this country.”
After the webcast panel concluded, a local panel of experts added a Western New York perspective to the issue. Among their comments:
Joy McDuffie, a housing counselor at the Western New York Law Center: “With certain services, if they are not demanded by the underserved, the funders are not going to see to it that the services are there. People are not even aware that if I’m losing my house or I have consumer debt, an attorney can help me. Maybe attorneys need to brand themselves positively so people demand their services. When people demand things, funding will follow.”
Daniel Webster ’08 of Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled or Disadvantaged of Western New York: “The institutions of our country, including the court system, have a history of discrimination against segments of the population. Not having access to attorneys now perpetuates some of that discrimination. This issue really impacts the populations who have been historically discriminated against by attorneys, banks, courts, the police.”
Lillian Medina ’05, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo: “Sometimes people lack awareness that what they have is a legal issue. They think, ‘I have a problem here, not a legal issue.’ One of the first things I have to do is gain the trust of my clients. They are afraid of telling me, ‘My gas got shut off.’ You have to build that trust.”
Grace Andriette ’87, a supervising attorney with the Housing Unit of Neighborhood Legal Services: “Community partnerships are an integral part of what legal services agencies need to develop. They are much more on the ground than we are, and probably more sensitive to the cultural competency issues that are important to certain populations. It also serves as a multiplier. The legal need is so great, we’re probably never going to have enough lawyers to meet that need. Educating community advocates is really important so they know, this is a client who needs to be referred, this is someone we can help right here, right now.”
Melinda Saran ’86, the Law School’s vice dean for student affairs: “Legal education has to play a big role by graduating diverse professionals. Having people who speak people’s languages is so important, so an individual doesn’t have to have an interpreter between them and their attorney. We have a growing number of individuals from Asian populations who speak native languages, in addition to Spanish and Arabic-speaking people.”
Keisha Williams of the Western New York Law Center: “We’re all aware of the disparate effect of poverty on communities of color and women. The only way to bring about justice for people of color and gender justice is for us to have a broad right to counsel in these areas for that class of people.”