Stephen C. Lessard
April 30, 2020
Re: A “Humanitarian Exception”
Dear Chief Judge DiFiore, Judge Marks, Justice Acosta, Justice Scheinkman, Justice Garry, and Justice Whalen:
We write with respect to an access to justice issue that is of concern to the New York County Lawyers Association, its Justice Center, Committee on Professionalism and Professional Discipline and Ethics Institute. That issue is the inability of indigent litigants to meet basic human needs while their cases are pending. These litigants are typically represented without fee by volunteer lawyers on a pro bono basis or by dedicated lawyers from legal service organizations. The urgency and cause of these litigants’ desperate financial situation are often at the heart of the litigation, but that very situation may preclude the litigants from being able to maintain the litigation to conclusion.
The need for some funding of basic needs of indigent litigation clients so that their cases may go forward and their poverty does not extinguish their right to relief is becoming even more acute as the result of the COVID-19 emergency. We are aware of the letter written to you on April 24 on behalf of the New York City Bar Association and of the proposed change to Rule 1.8 of the Rules of Professional Conduct described in that letter.
The amendments proposed are not a complete answer to the underlying issue, but they or other steps are urgently needed now. The courts of this State under your leadership have responded in prompt, innovative and constructive ways to the present crisis, and this is another area where we believe similar action is necessary. We respectfully urge that steps to permit some funding of these critical needs be adopted as soon as possible on at least a temporary, emergency, if not more permanent, basis.
You have the deepest gratitude and respect of NYCLA for the leadership you have all demonstrated during this difficult time. NYCLA, its Justice Center, Committee on Professionalism and Professional Discipline, and Ethics Institute stand ready to work with the courts and other groups to find solutions to this and other access to justice issues affecting the indigent on both an immediate and longer-term basis.
cc: Anthe Maria Bova, NYCLA General Counsel & Director of Pro Bono Programs
James Kobak, Co-Chair, NYCLA Justice Center
Ron Minkoff & Phil Schaeffer, Co-Chairs, NYCLA Committee on Professionalism and Professional Discipline
Sara Jo Hamilton, Chair, NYCLA Ethics Institute
Roger Maldonado, President, New York City Bar Association
Wally Larson, Jr., Chair, New York City Bar Association Professional Responsibility Committee
Tyler Maulsby, Chair, Professional Ethics Committee