Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Legal defense for the poor

The Journal News down in White Plains ran the following editorial this week. It also applies to the poor in our area.
New York has an embarrassing record on state money spent on legal defense for poor people. Last year it spent $2.54 per poor person for civil legal services; in comparison, Massachusetts spent $16.50, New Jersey, $23.44 and Minnesota $32.33, according to the Legislative Gazette in Albany. Thanks to some new money in this year's state budget, and a new requirement that banks pay higher interest rates on accounts specifically set up to provide such services, New York will be a little less red in the face in the future.

The final 2007-'08 state budget includes long-awaited increases in money to provide legal assistance to the poor, with $6.8 million that was cut last year restored and $8 million in new funding. Long-awaiting the money were groups like Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, a not-for-profit that provides free legal service for low-income resident in the Lower Hudson Valley. Clients, including the elderly and the disabled, receive help in domestic violence cases, housing disputes and in securing public benefits.

Clients, agencies and Assembly Democrats pronounced themselves thrilled at the changes. "Year after year, we have faced an executive branch unwilling to fund civil legal services,'' said Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, in a press release. "It is a refreshing change to have a partner like Gov. Spitzer who believes that the words 'liberty and justice for all' should have meaning for all New Yorkers."

As important as the new money is, there is a proposed change in regulations afoot that also will bring in more recurring money. The Interest on Lawyer Account Fund was set up in 1983 with the support of the New York State Bar Association to provide additional financial support to civil legal service organizations. It has been decimated by federal budget cuts, Spitzer's office said. The IOLA program, which has given more than $154 million in grants since it was set up, requires attorneys to deposit funds from clients either in interest-bearing accounts for the benefit of the clients or in interest-bearing IOLA accounts.

Yet the interest on that IOLA account money has been pitiable. The top 80 banks that handle such funds have paid an average interest rate of less than 1 percent, even on accounts of more than $100,000.

New state regulations just out of Spitzer's office will require banks to pay a more competitive rate. At about 2.7 percent, the interest could total at least $45 million more a year for nonprofit legal services, it's estimated. No legislative action is needed for the fund change, but a 45-day comment period has begun, ending July 15. In addition to the applause, our only comment: It took, disgracefully, far too long for New York to do the right thing.

Albany Catholic has nothing to add, although we may have questions for those banks.