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Top judges talk about preserving justice system

New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman was among a panel of judges, lawyers, business leaders and citizens who testified Thursday before a special hearing on preserving the justice system, sponsored by the American Bar Association at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

New York is not the only state trying to do more with less.

The impact of court under funding was discussed Thursday by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and several other Northeast judges at a hearing on the critical need for access to justice, sponsored by the American Bar Association Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System.

“For every person getting help through legal services providers, another eight to 10 are being turned away,” Judge Lippman said. “We need a commitment from the state government to fund legal services.”

He said funding for legal services is a basic responsibility of the state government and just as important as other essential programs such as the education system.

“Access to justice is not a luxury,” Judge Lippman said. “If the [legal] profession does not stand up for civil legal services for the poor, no one will.”

He said New York is only meeting about 20 percent of the civil legal services needs of its indigent residents and the publicly funded legal representation will pay for itself many times over.

“Creating strong legal services makes good economic sense,” Judge Lippman said. “In New York, there is a $5 return on every dollar spent on legal services, enabling people to pay bills, avoid eviction and cut down on foster care. Courts are the protector of the legal rights of Americans. Rule of law loses its meaning if it’s available only for those who can afford it.”

The national hearing, hosted at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, was to document the crisis. It included testimony from those most closely affected such as judges, lawyers, business leaders and citizens caught in the system.

Judge Lippman said there are 4.7 million new cases filed in New York state’s courts every year with family violence cases up 33 percent.

“In New York, the courts are constitutionally bound to deliver justice,” he said. “What takes place behind the courthouse doors? A record number of Americans need a lawyer, but can’t afford help; 2.3 million litigants appeared without a lawyer.”

Judge Lippman said 95 percent of parents in child support matters try to represent themselves and 65 percent of homeowners facing foreclosure did not have an attorney.

Judge Lippman knows all too well the frustration of inadequate funding. To help offset lost revenue streams, he included $25 million in his 2011-12 budget proposal strictly to fund civil legal services, but had to cut that in half to meet a state-ordered budget reduction of $170 million from the $2.7 billion spending plan.

Others are feeling his pain.

“We closed our courts 12 days in fiscal year 2011 and cut jury trials by one-third,” said New Hampshire Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis. “Nine judgeships remain vacant. The workforce has been cut by 20 percent.”

She anticipates more unpaid work furloughs and a dramatic restructuring, but vows to not close courts to save money.

New York has laid off more than 400 court employees this spring as part of the $170 million funding request cut.

Other speakers included ABA President-elect William T. Robinson and Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar who spent some time last year as the Justice Department’s senior counselor for access to justice.

The hearing was co-chaired by David Boies, chairman of the New York City firm Boies, Schiller and Flexner LLP, and Theodore B. Olson, a Washington D.C. attorney. The first hearing was earlier this year in Atlanta. The task force is scheduled to provide a written report to be considered by the ABA House of Delegates in August