Council Holds Hearing on Levine Bill to Create Office of Civil Justice

New Office Will Help Expand Legal Representation to All Low-Income Tenants in Housing Court


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, April 15

CONTACT: Tyrone Stevens 917-842-5748 / tstevens@council.nyc.gov

NEW YORK -- On Wednesday, April 15th, City Council Member Mark Levine announced that the Committee on Courts and Legal Services chaired by Council Member Rory Lancman, held a hearing on Intro 736, a bill Council Member Levine introduced with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to establish a new Office of Civil Justice. The office will be charged with assessing the need for civil legal services throughout New York City.

The hearing featured testimony from tenants, housing advocates, and experts in the field of civil law and housing, who together, delivered a strong rationale for creating the Office of Civil Justice. Among the witnesses was Human Resources Administration (HRA) Commissioner Steven Banks, whose remarks emphasized the essential need for expanding civil legal help.

Commissioner Banks also spoke of the Administration’s support for the framework provided by Intro 736, which will allow efforts already underway at HRA to expand civil legal services to continue.

During the hearing, legal and housing advocates also spoke out in favor of Intro 736, noting that the Office of Civil Justice will serve as a critical step toward assuring access to justice. Importantly, this groundbreaking legislation is another example of the City’s commitment to civil justice issues and will serve as a key foundational piece toward increasing legal services for tenants in Housing Court.

“For decades, defendants in criminal courts have had a right to an attorney, regardless of whether they could afford to pay. However, in civil courts, where people face life altering judgements, ranging from eviction, to deportation, to child custody verdicts, low-income New Yorkers are left to fend for themselves when they lack the resources for an attorney. This has created a profoundly uneven playing field for tenants, immigrants and New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet that falls short of any reasonable standard of justice. With this legislation, we’re taking a step further in leveling the playing field in civil court proceedings. We have long had a criminal justice coordinator and this bill creates a similar office for civil court actions and critically maps out a five year strategy to meet the legal needs of low-income tenants in housing court,” said Council Member Mark Levine.

“Civil proceedings cover life changing events, including child custody, deportation and the loss of housing,” said Courts and Legal Services Committee Chair Rory Lancman. “Establishing an Office of Civil Justice, headed by a Civil Justice Coordinator appointed by the mayor, would centralize our effort to understand, analyze and identify the legal representation needs of New Yorkers, and oversee the effectiveness of our civil legal services funding.”

Modeled after the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Office of Civil Justice would coordinate with the Mayor and the City Council to develop a comprehensive strategy for expanding low cost or free legal services to low-income New Yorkers. The creation of the Office of Civil Justice was highlighted by Speaker Mark-Viverito as a high priority during her State of the City Address, and the proposal comes on the heels of significant funding increases for civil legal services across the City. Some noteworthy examples in just the last year include:

 

  • More than doubling the funding for the City Council Anti-Eviction initiative from $2.5M to $5.5M

  • More than doubling the funding for the Homelessness Prevention Law Project from $6.4M to $13.5M

  • A $36 million commitment from the Mayor to provide anti-harassment services to tenants over the next 3 years

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