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

Bill de Blasio voiced support for publicly funded legal representation, which he has resisted on the city level.

Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Photo: Andrew Burton for Getty Images)
Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Photo: Andrew Burton for Getty Images)

Mayor Bill de Blasio" class="company-link">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.

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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.

“I do think a lot of change is on the horizon,” the mayor said today, noting that the presidential race has brought his signature issue of economic inequality to the fore. “I think that’s the underlayment of the change you’re talking about. I think as our country comes to grip, comes to grips with of how many people are struggling economically, how many people cannot afford representation, and what the ramifications are of that, I think people will be more open to federal investment in legal representation.”

Mr. de Blasio said there was “no certain date” when such a reform would come to pass, but said the “trend” is in that direction.” Mr. Lippman, a supporter of right to counsel, has held annual hearings on the idea for several years.

“The effect of not having an attorney in a civil case can be equally serious to the loss of an individual’s home, family, their job. You think we could get to that point, where anything, in the foreseeable future, where everyone gets an attorney?” Mr. Lippman said. “We want to get to a point where everyone is entitled to a lawyer.”

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.”

Despite having the support of 38 out of the Council’s 51 members, and the backing of Public Advocate Letitia James, the measure has not been able to get a hearing from Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Mr. Levine, however, said he was not prepared to try to override her or the mayor and preferred to continue negotiating.

He also argued that the city appeared to be taking incremental steps toward universal legal representation in housing court.

“The farther we go, then the less the disparity is between the status quo and what full representation for all people would be,” he said. “Over time, we think it becomes an even easier case to make.”

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