Council Votes to Create New ‘Office of Civil Justice’

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at her State of the City address. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at her State of the City address. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)

The City Council today voted to create a new “Office of Civil Justice” to better connect plaintiffs in housing and immigration court with attorneys—an initiative Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has dubbed “the people’s law firm.”

“Limited access to an attorney means limited access to justice,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said today at a press conference before the Council’s vote on the bill.

Ms. Mark-Viverito first made the call for the office, modeled off the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice, in her State of the City address earlier this year. While plaintiffs in criminal cases are guaranteed lawyers, those in civil cases—which can include deportation, child custody and eviction proceedings—are not.

“They’re fighting to protect their homes and their financial security and sadly they’re often doing that alone,” she said.

The new office will be headed by a Civil Justice Coordinator, who will “advise” the mayor on ways to connect people in need of legal help with civil legal services. It will be part of the city’s Human Resources Administration and, though the coordinator will be a new hire, the position will be funded with existing HRA budget funds, according to the Council. The city would not be providing legal help but would rather be connecting people with already available help through law schools, pro bono work, or groups like the Legal Aid Society.

The initiative is not quite as large-scale as efforts spearheaded by Councilman Mark Levine and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson to establish a “right to counsel”—the right to a lawyer in any kind of court, not just criminal courts.

“The Council has been focused like a laser on the injustice that’s occurring every day in civil courts throughout the city—in housing court, in immigration court and elsewhere, where there’s no right to counsel,” Mr. Levine said at the press conference today. “This isn’t like on Law & Order, where criminal defendants get an attorney whether they have money or not.”

The legislation passed today by a vote of 49-0. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign it, and the law would go into effect immediately upon his signature.

The Council has previously taken steps to help provide lawyers for unaccompanied minors appearing in immigration courts in New York, putting up funding to connect the children with legal services.