Albany — Michele Bulson of Troy was trapped in an abusive marriage and wanted to get out, but the disabled 37-year-old lives on a fixed income and couldn’t afford a lawyer.
Last year, thanks to help from The Legal Project, an Albany-area nonprofit group providing legal services for the poor, she was able to navigate divorce and domestic violence proceedings and finally move on.
“I can honestly say that without the program I would still be married,” she said. “They went to court with me whenever I needed it. They supported me in everything.”
Gov. Eliot Spitzer has proposed spending $36 million on legal services for the poor in his $120.6 billion budget. That’s up $9 million from the current year’s budget, budget division spokesman Jeffrey Gordon said. The money comes from a variety of sources, including for the first time general fund money raised through taxes, advocates said.
Still, legal advocates say more needs to be done.
“If you’re living in poverty, your life intersects with the law in so many ways,” said Anne Erickson, chief executive of the nonprofit Empire Justice Center. “You may have rights and protections, but no way to assert them if you don’t have an attorney. You’re often up against the government, a well-funded landlord or an employer.”
The center’s clients often run into legal issues involving the denial of Social Security benefits, government assistance or health care, evictions, and child custody, among other things, she said.
New York State Bar Association President Mark Alcott said that while the funding provided by Spitzer marks “historic progress,” the state will still trail many others in such funding.
“There are many states that provide far more than New York does,” he said, noting an estimated 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet nationwide each year. “New York should be a leader in this area.”
On a per-poor-person basis, the state has provided only about $2.54 in civil legal funding annually from its general fund, compared with $23.44 in New Jersey, $16.50 in Massachusetts and $32.33 per person in Minnesota, according to statistics compiled by the American Bar Association.
Seven states provide no general-fund appropriations for such services.The $36 million proposed by Spitzer includes federal money and money earned from interest on attorney trust accounts, amounts that can vary from year to year. Only $4.6 million comes from the general fund.
Erickson and other legal service groups say boosting the state’s general obligation funding to $50 million annually would provide $18.50 in legal service funding per poor person in New York.
E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a group that tracks state spending, pointed to Spitzer’s inclusion of the money in his spending plan as reason why the governor should not allow lawmakers to add hundreds of millions of dollars in spending to the budget this year as they have in the past.
“I think there are a number of ways the budget makes concessions to the Legislature,” McMahon sad. “A lot of old fights that have gone by the wayside here. For all the public combativeness in his relationship with the Legislature, the budget is very Assembly friendly.”
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