The New York City Council recently passed a bill to create an Office of Civil Justice Coordinator.
The bill, which was co-sponsored by Councilman Mark Levine, would create an office within the Human Resources Administration and have a budget of about $2 million. The office would work with city agencies to collaborate with nonprofits, pro bono programs and advise the mayor on implementing legal services as well as make budget recommendations.
Apparently the bill, which has the Mayor’s support, is now awaiting his signature.
Its actually really rather astonishing that this idea is not standard. While the state Access to Justice Commissions provide some (but often not enough) of this role statewide, it rarely reaches down to the local level of community or courthouse. Some directors of self-help services similarly surely play this role, but not in an officially recognized — and funded way.
By embarrassing comparison, Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils (at least statewide), go back to the 70’s. I know, having worked closely with the NYC Criminal Justice Coordinator in the 1990s, that it made a huge difference in making possible innovations such as Midtown Community Court. Similarly, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and other defender innovations. I am sure that the new cvil access office will make use of these experiences.
Its easy to image the roles that such a Coordinator and Coordinating Council could play.
- Creating and supporting local innovations
- Ensuring availability of an unbundled panel
- Scheduling pro bono dockets to lessen the burden on attorneys
- Local legal need and capacity studies
- Study of flow in the courthouse
- Ensuring information in as broad a range of locations as possible — including online
- Developing a community access to justice strtegic plan
- Inputting in to the judicial selection process
- Imputing into the legal aid priority setting process
- Supporting statewide initiatives
- Collaboratively raising local money for initiatives
- Creating the missing collaborations with libraries and social service agencies
- Involving local business and politicians in access to justice
Its not hard to build a much broader and more ambitious list that would be about problem solving, not just advocacy for money community based legal aid within the bureaucracy.
I would suggest that setting up a statewide network of such groups might be high on the agenda of state Commissions. They would be particularly helpful as we may move towards setting of more specific access to justice goals. Such goals will have been implemented locally not just statewide.
Finally, I hope NYC folks work hard to give the new position as broad a focus and ambition as possible.