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Pataki Appointees Kill Funding for Legal Aid Programs In Syracuse, White Plains, Brooklyn, Rochester & Long Island

June 11, 2001

For Immediate Release
May 31, 2001

Contact Information:
Craig Siegel, 212 998–6322
Amanda Cooper, 212 998–6736

Pataki Appointees Kill Funding for Legal Aid Programs in Syracuse, White Plains, Brooklyn, Rochester & Long Island
Action Reverses New York’s Practice of Providing Legal Aid For Poor Clients Abandoned by Congress in 1996

Governor Pataki’s appointees to the state Interest on Lawyer Account (IOLA) Board have revoked funding for five local legal aid programs that have been representing low-income clients left without lawyers since 1996 when Congress severely restricted federal funds for legal aid. The decision by New York’s IOLA Fund, which grants more than $12 million to legal aid programs statewide, means that more low-income disabled children, mentally ill adults, and immigrants will be left without legal representation.

Four of the legal aid programs de-funded by IOLA’s actions were funded in 1996 at law schools in Brooklyn, Syracuse, White Plains and on Long Island to fill critical gaps in service left by Congress’s imposition of broad restrictions on the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The fifth program is the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester (PILOR). IOLA’s Board made the cuts notwithstanding uniformly positive mid-year reviews from IOLA’s staff for the five local programs.

The Board voted 5–4, along partisan lines, to de-fund the law school programs and the Rochester law office after some board members expressed objections to the types of aggressive legal representation that the programs have been providing. These programs were cut even as IOLA increased its overall funding by $1.2 million.

“It’s no coincidence that these cuts come at the same time that the Board’s Priorities Committee is completing its work,” explained Craig Siegel, Associate Counsel at the Brennan Center. “We are deeply concerned that this action signals a change in direction for IOLA. It’s unacceptable for IOLA to limit its support only to the type of restricted legal representation blessed by the Gingrich Congress in 1996. Now more than ever, IOLA must stand by its commitment to fund high quality legal representation for all low-income New Yorkers.”

Paul Kelly, a Syracuse University clinical law fellow who runs one of the de-funded programs, said: “Our program meets the pressing needs of the most vulnerable members of our community, including children with disabilities and people labeled as mentally ill. The IOLA board’s decision will harm these people who have no place else to turn for the legal help they need.” IOLA will cease funding Mr. Kelly’s program, and the three other law school programs, at the end of the month.

“IOLA’s decision reneges on New York’s promise to fund legal aid for poor people who need access to our justice system,” added Siegel. “Unfortunately, New York has become part of a disturbing trend in several states to impose ‘copycat’ restrictions on legal aid lawyers similar to those already imposed by the federal government.”

Jane Greengold Stevens, who runs the program at Brooklyn Law School, left her job as an LSC-funded attorney so she could continue to represent low-income clients in the important categories of cases that her former legal services employer could no longer handle.

Kathleen Whelan, who runs the de-funded program at Touro Law Center, said: “My biggest concern about the IOLA Board’s decision is for the families of undocumented immigrants on Long Island. When the Touro Social Justice Project comes to an end they will have no place to go for help when they are facing a public benefit cut-off for the citizen kids, or when the whole family is facing eviction or homelessness. I don’t know what to tell these families when they call for help now.”

Jennifer Brown, who runs the de-funded program at Pace Law School, said: “The Hudson Valley Poverty Law Center has helped fill a huge void by assisting those individuals who cannot be served by local federally-funded legal services providers. Without this program in place, many poor individuals living in the Hudson Valley will have nowhere else to turn.”

The Brennan Center’s Access to Justice Project works to enable low-income persons to effectively protect their legal rights. Focusing on eliminating barriers that interfere with the legal representation of low-income persons in civil matters, the Project produces public education materials, promotes communication and coalition-building, provides legal counseling and conducts litigation on behalf of a broad and expanding network of legal services clients and advocates. For more information, click here.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law develops and implements a nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education, and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms. Please contact Craig Siegel at (212) 998–6322, or Amanda Cooper at (212) 998–6736.