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January 21, 2004

NY Bar Ass’n Ignores Self-Help Approach to Improving Access to Justice

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 9:21 pm

no money, no justice closed sm

Echoing last week’s judiciary report on bro bono in New York, the State Bar Association omitted self-help law this week, when trumpeting the group’s efforts to increase access to the legal and civil justice system. (press release, “State Bar Reaffirms Commitment to Providing Free Legal Services for the Poor,” 01-19-04)

Sounding very defensive about last week’s judicial Report concerning the amount of pro bono service provided to the poor in New York, the Association president “reaffirmed his group’s longstanding commitment to have each lawyer in the state provide 20 hours a year of voluntary legal services to the poor.” [According to the Report, which we discussed, here, less than one-quarter of New York’s lawyers met that goal in 2002.]

The Press Release declared that NYSBA has been committed since 1990 to an aggressive two-part plan to improve access to justice for low-income New Yorkers.” Unfortunately, that plan only embraces approaches that include the use of attorneys:

  • “encouraging lawyers to provide more pro bono legal services to the poor and
  • “ensuring that legal services programs receive adequate public and private funding.”

Similarly, in the Association’s 2002-2003 Report to the Membership, the then-sitting bar president wrote:

The Association has a long, proud commitment to the principle of access to justice. Critical components in that mission are adequate compensation for assigned counsel, greater funding of civil legal services and support of pro bono service.

Futhermore, although the Association’s Executive Committee gave limited approval in January, 2003, to the use of unbundling, it opposed its use in litigated matters.

The Association is well aware that there is little chance of any significant increase in funds for legal services (a reduction is more likely). And, as we pointed out here, it would take an average per lawyer of 85 additional hours of pro bono work annually to fill the service gap projected by the Association and the court administration. Clearly, only self-help approaches can meaningfully begin to address the access problem for the poor and middle-income consumers.

noloShark This refusal by NYSBA to acknowledge or advance the Self-Help movement isn’t a surprise to ethicalEsq, despite its announcement on January 13th, 2004, that Accessibility was its top legislative priority (which we discussed here; and see “pro bono is not the answer to the access problem“). Last August, we awarded a special JuDee Pampleteering Citation to the Association for its brochure You and Your Lawyer. As we cheekily explained:

Named after the famous biblical character, the Judas Esquariot Award Program was started in July 2003 (see posting 7/13/03), to recognize “exceptional efforts to promote the financial interests of lawyers while purporting to protect consumers of legal services” Affectionately called JuDees, the awards are granted, in various categories, to especially deserving lawyer groups. . . .

NYSBA refuses to join the self-help bandwagon by suggesting that kits, books or software might give consumers useful access to legal services. Instead, You and Your Lawyer warns of dire consequence to be paid by any “fool” who attempts to solve legal problems without using a lawyer (emphasis added):

Why you should not seek to handle your own legal affairs

A number of do-it-yourself “kits” are offered for sale from time to time. Kits are available for getting a divorce, declaring bankruptcy, or forming a business. It’s not illegal for you to use these for your own affairs; however, you risk paying the consequences. Kits may appear to save you money, but a minor detail, one that you might overlook but one that a lawyer is trained to notice, could result in a loss far greater than what you “save” by trying to be your own lawyer. After all, there’s an old saying, even for lawyers, that “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

Given this attitude, there seems to be little hope that the organized bar in New York will help to bring practical self-help law programs and technology to consumers in need of legal services in the Empire State. Instead, advances that are already in use in other states will continued to be ignored. Dear NYSBA, please prove me wrong.

p.s. You can find materials about self-help law, including links to available resources, at our sister weblog SHLEP (the Self-Help Law ExPress).

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