Gotham Gazette: Through Committee, Bill to Create Office of Civil Justice Heads Toward Law

New York City is one step closer to having a new Office of Civil Justice. On Tuesday, the City Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services unanimously passed a bill that would create the office, to be tasked with assessing, coordinating, and helping reform the civil legal services available to low-income New Yorkers. Among the most pressing concerns are ensuring legal representation for immigrants facing deportation and tenants facing eviction.

The bill, Intro. 736, has Council Member Mark Levine and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito as its lead sponsors and is expected to sail through the full City Council Wednesday and be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in the coming weeks. It is a significant step in work being done by both sides of City Hall to reform the city’s justice system – whether criminal or civil – with focus on equity and consistency.

The office will be headed by a civil justice coordinator appointed by the mayor, and will assess the efficacy and capacity of existing civil legal provider programs. The city currently allocates tens of millions of dollars to provide civil legal services for those who cannot afford counsel. The civil justice office would also develop a five-year plan to ensure low-income New Yorkers have the access to the civil legal services they need.

Though defendants navigating the criminal court system must be provided an attorney by law, indigent New Yorkers engaged in civil proceedings currently do not have a right to counsel and are often left without legal representation.

“Civil proceedings cover life changing events, including child custody, deportation and the loss of housing,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee. “Establishing an Office of Civil Justice, headed by a Civil Justice Coordinator appointed by the mayor, would centralize our effort to understand, analyze and identify the legal representation needs of New Yorkers, and oversee the effectiveness of our civil legal services funding.”

The bill leaves it up to the mayor to determine where the new office is created. Lancman expects that de Blasio will place it under the purview of the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), led by Commissioner Steven Banks. Banks, who worked at the Legal Aid Society for 33 years prior to his appointment to HRA, testified in support of the bill and suggested the office be placed at his agency at an April 15 hearing.

“Basically it formalizes what the administration’s already done,” David Neustadt, an HRA spokesperson, said. “The legislation calls for doing a study on future needs for civil legal services which the commissioner has already committed to doing.”

The April hearing also featured testimony in support of the bill from legal service providers including Legal Aid, Brooklyn Legal Services, and Bronx Defenders – these organizations receive city funding provide civil legal services, funding that has increased under de Blasio and Mark-Viverito.

Both the mayor and the speaker have made justice system reform key aspects of their tenures, and both have committed to doing more. Mark-Viverito first unveiled the plan for the Office of Civil Justice during her February State of the City speech.

Council Member Levine jumped at the chance to work with Mark-Viverito on the bill. “It’s an incredibly exciting moment in the push for justice in the civil arena,” Levine said.

Levine put forth Intro. 214 in March of 2014, which would provide guaranteed legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court. The bill has since stagnated in committee, but Levine and others continue to push for additional funding of those legal services. The civil justice office will be tasked with determining how much funding legal services should receive and making recommendations to the mayor.

Council Member Lancman told Gotham Gazette that negotiations between the Council and the de Blasio administration are ongoing over how much funding for civil legal services will be included in the city’s fiscal year 2016 budget. As de Blasio unveiled his ambitious affordable housing plans this winter, he promised that residents in soon-to-be rezoned neighborhoods would be provided with legal protections.

Mark-Viverito has been a vocal and active advocate in matters of civil and criminal justice, especially this year, proposing in her State of the City address to expand the use of summonses and desk appearance tickets for minor offenses in lieu of arrests. Mark-Viverito also has called for an expansion of the size of the New York police force and the creation of a city-wide fund to help non-violent offenders who can’t afford bail access to the funds needed for release.

The push for an increase in civil legal services has also appeared at the state level. In 2010, Chief Judge of the New York State of Appeals Jonathan Lippman created the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services. At the task force’s recommendation, the new state budget allocated $85 million for indigent civil legal services, an increase of $15 million from the previous fiscal year, the Wall Street Journal reported.

According to Council Member Lancman, Intro. 736 enjoys “universal support.” As evidence, Council Member Vincent Ignizio, Republican Minority Leader, was for the bill in Tuesday’s courts committee vote. It is the first bill to come through Lancman’s court and legal services committee, which was created by Mark-Viverito last September.

“We’re not creating a substantive right,” Lancman told Gotham Gazette on Tuesday. “If we were creating a substantive right to counsel for housing court or anything else, I think people would rightfully ask where’s the funding for that and that may or may not create opposition,” he added, referencing Intro. 214. “But the idea that the amount of money that the city is spending on civil legal services should be overseen by one office, evaluated by one office, and coordinated by one office has universal support.”

By Catie Edmondson

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