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Program That Funds Legal Representation For The Poor Gets Major Boost

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The program that funds legal representation for the poor received a major boost Thursday. NY1’s Dean Meminger filed the following report.

Hiring a lawyer can be incredibly expensive. Lawyers say poor New Yorkers have a nearly impossible time obtaining legal representation, especially in civil cases.

"We have to turn away six clients for every one we can represent,” said Steven Banks of the Legal Aid Society. “This means people ended up being evicted, immigrants end up getting deported, people who need health care or assistance income can't get it."

"Eighty-five percent of constituents who walk in are walking in because of some sort of legal concern that stems from the fact that they can't afford a lawyer,” said State Senator Jose M. Serrano.

A big chunk of the money for Legal Aid Services for civil cases comes from Income on Lawyers Accounts — the interest earned on retainer fees clients give private lawyers. Those retainers add up to $3.1 billion yearly, but up until now, banks only paid about .5 percent of interest on all of that money.

Governor Elliot Spitzer says new regulations are raising that interest rate.

"You go from about .4 percent or .5 percent to 3 percent a year on $3.1 billion,” explained Spitzer. “You are talking about a gain to the IOLA system of something in the range of $60 to $80 millions per year."

Legal aid organizations say more money simply means they are going to be able to hire more attorneys to represent poor people in desperate need of help.

"People would go in and represent themselves in disability cases and they would lose the case and they would have a seven-minute hearing,” said Edwin Lopez-Soto, chairman of the IOLA board. “But if you are represented, you have a 72 percent chance of winning."

"We have found that there are individuals that are afraid of the courts because they are afraid to subject themselves to the system because they don't know what will happen to them," said Bronx Civil Court Administrative Judge Barry Salman.

More funding for services and lawyers could now ease those fears.

- Dean Meminger
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