Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / News / Government State / Task force focus on civil legal service needs

Task force focus on civil legal service needs

New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Appellate Division, Fourth Department Presiding Justice Henry J. Scudder on Tuesday at the Onondaga County Courthouse during hearings on civil legal services for the Fourth Department. Vasiliy Baziuk

When Cheri Caiella’s son returned from serving in the military, he looked like the same person who had left, but it quickly became obvious to her that he had greatly changed.

She said he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues, but was denied services by the Department of Defense.

An ignored traffic ticket brought legal trouble, which is how she met John G. Powers, director of the Onondaga County Bar Association’s Veteran and Military Service Member Pro Bono Clinic. Powers was helping her son with some legal issues that started when he failed to appear in court.

“Everyone in this courtroom knows it’s not a good idea not to show up in court” she told a panel Tuesday that included the state’s chief judge. “Judges don’t like being ignored.”

“We’re so happy you’re here,” said Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, noting her story demonstrated the broad array of needs facing New Yorkers.

For the third year in a row, Judge Lippman is conducting a series of public hearings to evaluate the continuing unmet civil legal services needs and devise ways to meet them. The findings, as well as the ongoing work of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, will be presented to the Legislature, along with a request for state funding to meet the needs. Task force chair Helaine M. Barnett and some other members were among the more than 50 people in the ornate courtroom of the Onondaga County Courthouse, where the third of four hearings was conducted.

On the panel were, from left, David M. Schraver, president-elect of the New York State Bar Association and partner with Nixon Peabody LLP; Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti; Judge Lippman; and Justice Scudder. Vasiliy Baziuk

Caiella said her son barely remembered getting the ticket. She added that he had enlisted in the Marine Corps, but she and her husband felt they had been drafted. She said she was “just a mom” and felt like the woman in the Bible who persistently appears in court seeking justice.

“If we do nothing, we’ve failed,” Caiella said. “But, I don’t sense that’s where this is heading.”

Powers said it is sometimes hard to understand why there is a need to focus on veterans because their injuries are not always apparent, but said a veteran is twice as likely to be among the nation’s homeless. He said they have gone through horrible things such as the loss of limbs and that some 40 percent of returning veterans have mental health injuries, which, Judge Lippman noted, creates other issues that result in the need for civil legal services.

Powers said the service members’ legal needs are met while they are in the service, but they not when they get out. He said doctors can treat the mental health issues, but cannot help with the daily life problems. He said more than 90 percent of the veterans who attend the pro bono clinic are disabled and unable to advocate for themselves.

Testifying on veterans’ needs was retired Monroe County Court Judge Patricia D. Marks, who is active in veterans issues and serves on the board of the Veterans Outreach Center. Vasiliy Baziuk

Also testifying on veterans’ needs was retired Monroe County Court Judge Patricia D. Marks who has been active in veterans issues for many years and serves on the board of the Veterans Outreach Center.

Judge Lippman noted that a lot of people do not realize that a lot of veterans are homeless and lack the means to support themselves. He said they may get into trouble and end up with a criminal record, but it is often related to the civil legal services issues around them.

While veterans have many of the same basic life issues such as joblessness, homelessness, divorce and custody matters; and substance abuse; Judge Marks said their needs are special because of their military service and the fact that they are trained not to seek help.

“Veterans like to speak to other veterans who shared a common experience,” said Phil Daily, an Iraq veteran and paralegal with Legal Assistance of Western New York in Geneva.

Judge Marks, who founded the Monroe County Veterans Court, recommended expanding veterans courts throughout the state, having lawyer-aid programs and specific continuing legal education training for lawyers to meet the special needs of veterans, and continued funding of legal services programs.

“This is an example of lawyers doing volunteer work on behalf of someone who can’t help themselves,” Judge Lippman said, noting Judge Marks spent 25 years on the bench and now continues volunteering for the VOC. “This is what we’re trying to inculcate with the younger generation.”

On the panel with Judge Lippman was Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti; Justice Henry J. Scudder, presiding justice of the 22-county Fourth Department, which includes Onondaga County; and David M. Schraver, president-elect of the New York State Bar Association and a Nixon Peabody LLP partner.

They listened for three hours, also hearing testimony about law schools and Judge Lippman’s new 50-hour pro bono requirement for law school students, as well as collaborations and cost-sharing efforts among civil legal services providers.

Jeffrey Unaitis, executive director of the Onondaga County Bar Association, expressed jealousy of the Telesca Center for Justice in Rochester, which houses local civil legal services providers in a single location.

He said staffs of programs in his area have been talking about something similar, receiving help from the Telesca Center and Monroe County.

“You’re doing exactly what you should be doing,” Judge Lippman told Unaitis.

Sally Fisher Carp, legal director of OCBA’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, talked about the importance of education and its ties to a need for civil legal services.

She said Onondaga County looked at the number of people receiving cash benefits and noted how few had any higher education, stressing the importance of keeping children in school, especially those whose parents are facing eviction.

The new pro bono requirement, effective Jan. 1, makes it mandatory for law school students to provide at least 50 hours of free legal service to the poor in order to be admitted to the New York state bar.

“I hope we’re not doing it in a way that doesn’t put the all of the burden on you,” Judge Lippman said, noting how law schools are critical players in providing access to justice. “In the end, you’re educating and we get that.”

Syracuse Law School Dean Hannah Arterian testified that law school clinics are thinking about access to justice while serving educational needs and being sensitive to costs. Vasiliy Baziuk

Syracuse Law School Dean Hannah Arterian said law school clinics are thinking very much about access to justice while serving educational needs and being sensitive to the costs of attending law school.

“I think it’s really important to recognize one of the things about being a lawyer is being a civic leader,” she said. “People who get law degrees will be faced with being civic leaders.”

One of her students, Catherine Sinnwell Gerlach, a pro bono fellow, graduates in May so the new requirement does not apply to her, but she testified that she has worked with the VLP for 10 hours a week, connecting students and engaging them in pro bono opportunities.

“So you do it and you get others to do it too?” Judge Lippman asked, smiling. “I’m going to send you around the state,” he joked.

He said he and his advisory committee grappled with general community service and the new pro bono requirement, which requires credited service be law-related. As an example, he said students can help build Houses for Habitat for Humanity, but would only get pro bono credit for legal-related work they may provide for the organization.

Sarah Heim, a student at Cornell Law School, acknowledged “the tremendous opportunities” Cornell provides and said she wants to give back.

“You know that was a theory behind this?” Judge Lippman said. “It’s a privilege to practice law in New York state. You’re terrific and we appreciate you’re going to go out and continue to do pro bono throughout your career.”

Cornell Law School Dean Stewart J. Schwab said he thinks there are some challenges regarding the new requirement, but that some can be exaggerated.

“Finding qualified supervisors will be an issue,” he said, referring to the part of the requirement that calls for each student’s pro bono service to be certified by a supervising attorney or judge.

Judge Lippman said the infrastructure for putting aside the 50 hours will clearly come from law schools, in partnership with the legal community, to instill a culture of service in the next generation of lawyers. He said all of the state’s law schools have been so helpful, acknowledging the upstate geographical challenges.

“There is so much need upstate, but it’s harder to access that need because it’s invisible,” Judge Lippman said. “It’s so spread out … we have providers that cover such huge geographical areas. We really need your help in figuring that out.”

Other witnesses were Judge Craig J. Doran, administrative judge of the Seventh Judicial District; Anthony P. Marshall, chair of the Say Yes to Education Legal Support Program Task Force and a member of the Syracuse office of Harris Beach PLLC; and Christopher Wiles, an assistant attorney general in the Syracuse Regional Office.

Judge Lippman, who is conducting a hearing in each of the Fourth Departments, expects to present his recommendations to the state by Dec. 1, the deadline for submitting the budget for the state court system to the governor.