Observer: De Blasio Says Right to Counsel in Civil Court ‘on the Horizon’—But Only if Feds Pay

By Will Bredderman

September 29, 2015

Mayor Bill de Blasio today told the state’s top judge that he believe the day is approaching when government will guarantee all citizens a lawyer in civil court cases—but said that the funding for the attorneys will have to come from the federal level.

Appearing before New York State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Mr. de Blasio gave an affirmative answer to Mr. Lippman’s question of whether defendants would one day enjoy the same promise of a lawyer in civil court as they currently do in criminal court. Yesterday, the mayor announced a new $12.3 million investment in free attorneys for tenants facing eviction under an abusive landlords—but bristled when the Observer asked about the his possibly supporting a Council bill that would create a “right to counsel” in housing court, which would come with an estimated $100 million price tag for the city.

Despite balking yesterday at the Observer’s query about the city right to counsel bill, Mr. de Blasio argued then that the city’s total investment in tenant services—expected to hit $60 million in the 2017 fiscal year—”pays for itself” by reducing strain on city homeless shelters and hospitals, and today argued that such spending has a “huge multiplier effect.” Mr. Lippman estimated that investment in legal representation has a six-to-one return rate.

It was the same argument Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine has repeatedly made in favor of the right to counsel measure, which he co-sponsored with Bronx Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson. Mr. Levine argued that, on top of reducing pressure on the shelter system and on public hospitals, the city would be able to spend less on everything from extra educational attention to troubled homeless children in schools to new affordable housing construction to mental health services—and that landlords would be less likely to engage in abusive practices, causing the need for attorneys to taper off as the city phases the program in.

“Over time the number of cases will drop. So it has kind of a virtuous cycle effect,” he said. “There’s tons of research showing that homelessness costs government money on countless other fronts.”

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