Monday, September 22, 2014

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Hearings Address Gap in Representation in Civil Court Cases

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Under the law, everyone has the right to an attorney in a criminal case, but it's a different story in civil court. Several hearings around the state aim to address that issue.
NY1's Dean Meminger filed the following report on the first one in Manhattan.

In sometimes tearful testimony, Brooklyn resident Yvette Walker described her experience in housing court without a lawyer.

"We are almost dehumanized," Walker says. "The landlord we were renting from house went into foreclosure and the bank didn't want prior tenants. And we had a rental program that the city had gotten rid of, so we ended up in the shelter system."

The state's Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman says he wants to people access to free or at least affordable legal services.

Two million New Yorkers try to navigate the civil court system each year without a lawyer, but often find it impossible—and the stakes are high.

"You could lose your job, you could lose the roof over your head, your kid doesn't have a place to go to school and you wind up as a burden to society and alone. What are we supposed to be all about? What's the justice system? What is our society supposed to be about other than to help people?" says Lippman.

Lippman and a panel of judges held a hearing to talk about ways to help.

As part of its budget, the state court system gives millions to legal service agencies—$70 million this year alone.

Speakers said they were fortunate to connect with some of those organizations. Some had to battle the school system; others took on property owners.

"I probably would have felt overwhelmed by the system and just moved out. And that's what many landlords count on," says Manhattan resident Wun Kuen Ng.

The city's top lawyer says although his agency is often on the other side of court battles with the government, he's behind the idea that everyone should have a lawyer.

"When each side in a civil case is well represented, that's when the system works at it's best," says Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter.

The courts admit that there is clearly a gap in the justice system. To fill that gap, it will take money and lawyers donating their time to represent those in need.

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