The New York State Bar Association’s House of Delegates on Saturday adopted a report with recommendations to address the shortage of lawyers in rural areas of the state.
The report was presented to the House of Delegates during an online video conference with 207 remote participants.
The 39-page report from the Task Force on Rural Justice calls for several initiatives to help with educational loan repayment for lawyers, tuition assistance programs, relaxed residency requirements for public attorney positions, and increased hourly rates for assigned counsel work.
The task force recommended payments to rural lawyers equal to the average annual in-state tuition rate and fees for public law schools in the state — currently $22,148. The recommendation calls for seven awards over five years for a total of 35 attorneys in rural areas.
The task force also suggested that the state expand the Excelsior Program, which now covers undergraduate tuition for students who stay in the state and work here for five years after graduation, to law students.
“Nearly 75% of current rural lawyers will retire over the next three decades with few to no new attorneys ready to replace them,” said state Bar Association President Hank Greenberg. “This disturbing trend would only further worsen the existing access-to-justice gap faced by our rural communities.
Although New York state has about 180,000 registered attorneys, most are based in non-rural counties. About 17 % of New Yorkers — roughly 3.3 million people — live in rural areas of the state. But there are only about 6,200 attorneys serving those areas, according to the report.
“In reality, the number of rural attorneys that actually offer legal services to individual members of the public is much smaller than that statistic indicates,” according to the report.
“A sizable proportion of these attorneys are district attorneys, government lawyers, members of the judiciary, or employees of private businesses, government or public institutions, none of which offer legal services to the general public,” according to the report.
Rates paid to attorneys appointed by the courts to represent clients in criminal and family courts are too low, according to the report. The last increase in assigned counsel rates was in 2004, when they were increased to $60 an hour for misdemeanors and lesser offenses, and $75 per hour for felonies and all other cases. Cases are also capped at $4,400.
The task force did not recommend a specific rate increase, although the Bar Association has endorsed a proposal to increase the hourly rate for parental representation in Family Court to $150.
The report also recommends raising the cap for small claims court from $5,000 to $10,000 for all town, city, village and district courts, and eliminate all filing fees for wills.
“Increasing the monetary maximum will mean that more cases could be handled in small claims courts, where the filing fees are nominal. Rural practitioners could potentially expand their practice by obtaining fees in a large volume of such matters, while helping their neighbors favorably resolve their disputes,” according to the report.
The report also recommends improving broadband internet access in rural areas to attract new attorneys and support more efficient rural practice.
And the task force suggests that law schools can help address the shortage through clinics, internships, pro bono work and support of law students interested in rural practice.
The task force was co-chaired by Stan L. Pritzker, an associate justice on the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Third Department, and Taier Perlman, staff attorney at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley.
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