18-B GOOD

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A specially-appointed court committee is preparing to reform the system that provides free lawyers to poor people in the Criminal and Family Courts in parts of New York City. That much-maligned system, overwhelmed by skyrocketing court caseloads, hasn’t been reviewed for 34 years, leaving poor New Yorkers stuck with overworked, underpaid lawyers who often can’t provide them with decent representation.

So last fall, the Appellate Division, First Department court appointed the nine member Committee on the Representation of the Poor to develop a restructuring plan. So far, the committee has proposed limiting caseloads, creating a dedicated institutional provider to represent the poor in Family Court, setting up a resource center staffed with investigators and social service workers, and establishing an oversight panel.

“You have an explosion in cases that require that counsel be provided to the poor,” explained Catherine O’Hagan Wolfe, Clerk of the Court. She said that last year, New York and Bronx Counties alone saw 177,000 cases requiring these “18-B” lawyers, called that for the law that funds them.

At the committee’s public hearing last week, many attorneys commended the proposed reforms. But the committee has no power to change the system’s most obvious problem–dismal pay. Although the reforms may provide more resources for lawyers and smooth out wrinkles in the system, only the state Legislature can give these attorneys a raise.

“The fundamental problem is a lack of financial support to people who are unpopular, very poor, and have no voice,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf of Brooklyn Defender Services. She says that low pay has driven some of the best 18-Bs away from the field. 18-B wages, which are some of the lowest in the nation, are currently $40 an hour for in-court services and $25 an hour for work out-of-court.

The committee will report back to the First Department court, who will decide which reforms to enact. The changes would only affect Manhattan and the Bronx.