By Seeta Persaud, Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo
The start of every New Year brings with it the hope to achieve longstanding ideals. In 2018, equal access to justice remains an aspirational goal for our country. Yet, access to justice is now more critical than ever. Individuals need a lawyer’s help for everything from avoiding an unjust eviction to preventing a wrongful conviction. The gap between legal needs and the services available exacerbates systemic inequities that will only continue to increase without a viable solution.
Ever since the Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright establishing the right to counsel in criminal cases, it has never interpreted the United States Constitution to require that the government provide a lawyer in purely civil cases. In New York State, every dollar spent on civil legal aid creates $10 in benefits for the recipients of the assistance, their communities, and the state combined. Though it makes fiscal sense to invest in civil legal aid, Donald Trump tried to mobilize Congress last year to defund the 40-year-old Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the single largest funder of civil legal aid, serving two million low-income people nationwide who cannot afford legal representation. It should be noted that Congressional appropriations for the Legal Services Corporation were just $385 million in 2016. In the early 1980s, by contrast, the corporation received more than $770 million annually.
Though our organization itself does not receive LSC funding, as the oldest and largest provider of civil legal aid in the Western New York area, we appreciate the value of LSC funding, since we sometimes refer low-income Western New Yorkers to LSC-funded organizations, such as Neighborhood Legal Services, when we do not have the resources to meet the need. Even with the LSC, the overwhelming need for legal services still exceeds the legal services community’s capacity to meet that need.
At a time when the legal community is gravely concerned about access to justice for all, a viable solution may be found in legal aid help desks. Since 2014, the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and the 8th Judicial District have partnered to staff the Court Help Desk in Erie County to provide procedural information for pro se litigants at the Supreme Court Law Library located at 77 W. Eagle Street. The Erie County Court Help Desk is open Monday through Fridays from 10am to 4pm.
Pro se litigants – litigants acting without legal representation – can obtain legal information and referrals at the help desk on a first-come, first-served basis from Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo staff attorneys and Erie County Court Help Desk staff. Last fall, Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo expanded the Erie County help desk model to Niagara, Cattaraugus, Allegany, Chautauqua, Genessee, Orleans, and Wyoming counties to help pro-se litigants with a variety of legal matters. Services at the help desks are free to low and middle-income residents.
While the Erie County help desk is staffed four days per week, the surrounding counties are currently staffed once or twice per month. Consequently, we are currently seeking volunteers in the legal community who want to dedicate their time and talent to help ensure justice for all. No specific legal expertise is required. Volunteers receive initial and ongoing training and support from our Staff Attorneys. Volunteers do not give legal advice or represent litigants in litigation. This opportunity is ideal for volunteers who want to have a meaningful impact on the lives of unrepresented litigants, but who do not want to commit to handling a lengthy case. Volunteers are asked to commit to a schedule, to be agreed upon by Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and the volunteer; most volunteers volunteer one day per week. Attorney volunteers must be members of the New York State Bar. We also welcome law students, who will be paired with a volunteer attorney licensed to practice law in New York State. If you are interested in volunteering at one of our help desks, please call our office at 716-853-9555 or send an email to Paul Curtin, our Deputy Executive Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Help Desk Volunteer” in the subject line.
It is beyond dispute that it better for someone with a legal issue where the essentials of life are at stake to have full legal representation than to be unrepresented. However, legal aid help desks improve access to justice by making the court system more accessible to non-lawyers. Across New York State, where more than 2 million litigants enter court each year without representation, legal help desks represent the highest volume of legal assistance to unrepresented litigants. Help desks have been successful at providing limited services to thousands of litigants each year and they allow non-lawyers to better navigate the legal system. With so many unrepresented litigants in the courts, help desks play a pivotal role in ensuring that these litigants have access to at least some legal information to assist them with their cases.
For further information on the Erie County Court Help Desk, call 716-845-1816. Anyone seeking information about Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo’s walk-in help desk hours in any county in the 8th judicial district can call 716-853-9555.