Testimony by Randal Jeffrey, Director of General Legal Services, before the NYC Council Committee on Courts & Legal Services regarding the Preliminary Budget Hearing – Courts and Legal Services
March 27, 2015
Chair Lancman, Council Members, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Courts and Legal Services Committee about the FY16 budget. My name is Randal Jeffrey and I am the Director of the General Legal Services unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, veterans, as well as others in need of free legal services.
We applaud the Council for increasing the funding for civil legal services by more than $10 million in last year’s budget, an enormous and much-needed increase. Funding of free civil legal services programs through the City budget is critical to ensuring that these programs continue to provide necessary services to New Yorkers in need. An estimated 90% of litigants go unrepresented in New York City in fair hearings for public benefits, consumer credit cases, family court cases, and eviction cases. The Council clearly understands the need for wide-ranging civil legal services and funds broad categories of substantive services, including Citywide Civil Legal Services, Anti-Eviction Services, Legal Services for Domestic Violence Victims, the Domestic Violence and Empowerment Initiative (DoVE), the Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention Program, Legal Services for Veterans, Legal Services for the Working Poor and Unemployment Insurance Services. These Initiatives allow civil legal services organizations to provide expansive and far-reaching services to hundreds of thousands of low-income New Yorkers each year.
Citywide Civil Legal Services
Low-income New Yorkers face enormous barriers to justice, including geographic isolation, health and disability issues, inability to pay for public transportation, childcare concerns, lack of English proficiency and fears about immigration status. Quality civil legal services in a variety of substantive legal areas help these New Yorkers to attain economic self-sufficiency, ensure safe and secure living situations, keep their families together, end discrimination and harassment, protect the rights of disabled children, ensure that medical and financial wishes will be carried out, and improve the quality of their lives. Citywide Civil Legal Services funding allows legal services organizations to fund critical projects that affect New Yorkers facing a broad range of complicated issues. NYLAG specifically is able to use its dedicated Citywide Civil Legal Services funding to provide services to more than 2,000 New Yorkers each year in areas including housing, immigration and consumer protection.
The decline of affordable housing in New York City has become a true humanitarian crisis, displacing families that have lived here for decades and irreversibly changing neighborhoods. Rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments are at a premium and evictions often lead them to be returned to market rate, shrinking the affordable housing market even more. Unfortunately, there is a drastic imbalance in access to justice between tenants and landlords in eviction and other housing proceedings; 90% of landlords are represented in Housing Court, while 90% of tenants are unrepresented and often unaware of their rights. Some landlords who rent to low-income tenants often use this disparity to their advantage. Tenants are bullied and threatened, and are often afraid to assert their rights for fear of incurring the wrath of the owners or managers of their buildings. NYLAG and other legal services organizations work hard to ensure that communities retain their character, diversity and affordability by representing tenants in nonpayment and holdover proceedings, obtaining and preserving rent subsidies, and ensuring that people are given the time to find reasonable accommodations if they are evicted, keeping them out of the shelter system. For each family that avoids eviction, more than $37,000 is saved by the City in shelter costs.
NYLAG and many of the other organizations testifying today strongly support a codified right to counsel in Housing Court for low-income New Yorkers. We hope that such legislation is passed this year and fully funded by the Mayor’s Office and the City Council. In the absence of a current law mandating right to counsel, however, we ask that the Council continue to provide funding for critical housing services through Citywide Civil Legal Services and other targeted Housing Initiatives. Through this funding, NYLAG’s Housing Project alone is able to serve hundreds of individuals throughout the five boroughs each year.
New York City is proud to be known as the City of immigrants, with 40% of its residents born outside of the U.S. Whether an immigrant has just fled a violent situation in his or her home country or has been here for many years with a legitimate claim for status, immigration law practitioners must carefully evaluate each person for all potential forms of relief and represent them in their applications for citizenship and naturalization, adjustment of status, asylum, removal, VAWA self-petitions, U-visas, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), temporary protected status (TPS), and access to government benefits.
The need for funding for immigration services has increased greatly over the past year, due to the influx of unaccompanied minors arriving to the United States from Central America, as well as President Obama’s November 2014 announcement of administrative relief for some undocumented immigrants already living here. Unfortunately, fraudulent and unscrupulous immigration services “providers” often escalate their efforts in the wake of an immigration crisis or an announcement of changes to immigration laws. It is critical for legitimate legal services providers to maintain close ties to immigrant communities throughout New York City, continually inform them of their rights, and have adequate resources to represent them in administrative and legal matters. Continuation of the Citywide Civil Legal Services funding, as well as other targeted Immigrant Services Initiative funding, ensures that immigrants receive the protection they need while navigating through the complex immigration system. We also hope that the Council will consider expanding its successful Key to the City (KTTC) Initiative by adding permanent Immigration Legal Clinic Days to each KTTC event for community-based, large-scale clinics to screen immigrants for potential relief. While NYLAG has been staffing these clinics without funding for many months, it is not sustainable long-term; funding through the City Council will allow NYLAG to continue and expand its clinics for communities throughout New York City.
Despite the gradual uptick in the national economy since the recession of 2009, many New Yorkers still struggle with unemployment, depleted savings and unstable housing. Others, especially recent college graduates, are now experiencing the financial hardships that come with massive student loan debt. These vulnerable New Yorkers are often targets of identity theft, debt collection scams, credit reporting errors, unjust foreclosure, subprime loan conditions, and many require experienced legal assistance.
Attorneys with NYLAG’s comprehensive Consumer Protection Project advocate on behalf of clients fighting fraud, predatory lending and illegal debt collection practices, identity theft, and foreclosure, among other consumer issues. Working alongside a staff of financial counselors, NYLAG’s Consumer Protection legal staff helps people address a financial crisis, organize their finances, and plan and budget more effectively in the future. Funding for broad-based legal services initiatives, such as Citywide Legal Services, allows NYLAG and other providers to help clients navigate through highly complicated legal consumer challenges, and ensure long-term security and stability for families.
Legal Services for Veterans
Tens of thousands of veterans of wars ranging from World War II to the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq reside within the five boroughs. Unfortunately, many veterans in our community are poor or at high risk of poverty. Mental and physical health problems, as well as the fact that many veterans postponed or sacrificed higher education in order to pursue service, largely account for veterans’ high unemployment rates compared to other New York City residents, and their corresponding financial problems. The vast majority of the veterans we see every day have unmet legal and financial needs. NYLAG’s Veterans Legal Assistance Project, the sole project funded by the Council under last year’s new Legal Services for Veterans Initiative, provides comprehensive legal services to veterans who would otherwise be unable to afford the legal help they need.
Through NYLAG’s holistic care model, we help veterans and households with veterans to achieve economic security, including helping them to secure veterans’ and public benefits, and provide assistance in the areas of housing, consumer protection, and advance planning. We also have the unique capacity to serve veterans through our clinics at three VA hospitals, as well as those who are not served through the VA system. We hope that the Council will consider increasing the funding for the entire Veteran Services Initiative this year to ensure that our City’s veterans are afforded the mental health, job placement, and social services they deserve. As part of this Initiative, we ask that there is also an increase in funding for the Legal Services for Veterans Initiative this year, which will allow NYLAG to expand its capacity for clinics, workshops, and legal services. With current funding, NYLAG is on track to serve 300 veterans under the Initiative this year; we are prepared to increase that number significantly with additional funding.
Domestic Violence and Empowerment Initiative (DoVE)
When domestic violence victims choose to leave their abusive spouses, they often must navigate complex family law proceedings alone. Often, victims have no access to resources to pay for an attorney, and proceeding without a lawyer is disastrous when victims are unaware of their rights, intimidated by the system, culturally isolated, and frequently limited in their ability to speak English. Access to legal services, along with services such as counseling and shelters, greatly reduces the likelihood that a victim will be forced to return to her abuser. Low-income victims of domestic violence require legal assistance to secure a divorce, child/spousal support, and orders of protection, and to deal with ancillary issues including custody and visitation, paternity, adoption, child protection, and immigration relief.
For many years, the Domestic Violence and Empowerment Initiative (DoVE) Initiative has given legal and social services providers the funding necessary to help thousands of domestic violence victims throughout the City. Unfortunately, there is little specific funding available for legal services for domestic violence victims, making this Initiative all the more critical to helping victims escape their abusive situations permanently. Due in part to DoVE funding, NYLAG is able to take on complex cases for victims of domestic violence, including contested divorces and appeals on behalf of battered women denied justice in the lower courts, as well as cases for victims who often “fall through the cracks,” such as racial, ethnic and religious minorities. It is vital that the Council continue to provide funding for legal services to domestic violence victims; each year this funding allows us to prevent thousands of domestic violence victims from staying with or returning to their abusers. With its current DoVE funding, NYLAG is able to serve 250 domestic violence victims each year.
I want to once again take the opportunity to thank Chair Lancman and the members of the Committee for their outstanding leadership and commitment to overseeing the Courts and legal services organizations in New York City. The City is truly a model for other municipalities in its understanding of the need for nonprofit legal services organizations, and the accompanying need for robust public funding. We hope that you will continue to ensure that this funding, particularly for Citywide Civil Legal Services, Legal Services for Veterans and DoVE, is available to assist low-income New Yorkers in need of free civil legal services. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss any of these matters with the Committee further.
Director, General Legal Services
New York Legal Assistance Group