Press-Republican

December 17, 2011

Law Center aids pro bono expansion

REBECCA WEBSTER
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — The Rural Law Center in Plattsburgh is aiding the expansion of a free legal appellate assistance program.

The Law Center has teamed up with the New York State Bar Association's Committee on Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction and the Legal Project in Albany in providing pro bono expertise and assistance for select appeals cases.

The original pilot program, lasting one year, was available to people who lost civil cases and lacked the financial means to appeal.

Cynthia Feathers, co-chair of the Committee on Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction, said the program flourished, so they decided to continue it indefinitely.

"The pilot was a big success in providing free appellate attorneys for family-law appeals, but we realize there are many other (cases) in which people have urgent needs at the appellate level."

FINANCIALLY DIFFICULT

According to a Bar Association press release, the pilot program originally covered family and matrimonial appeals, but the new program covers appeals for a wide array of topics within those sectors, including education, health, housing and public benefits.

"New Yorkers shouldn't be denied representation on appeal solely because they lack the means to pay," said Bar Association President Vincent Doyle III in the release. "The State Bar Association is proud to be a national leader in providing pro bono legal assistance for appellate cases."

Susan Patnode, executive director of the Rural Law Center, said she worked with Feathers for a number of years discussing such problems.

"(Feathers) and I used to talk about how expensive it was for people to have appeals done."

She said it's a financial burden for those who are of modest means but also for the attorneys handling the appeals case, especially those in a rural area.

"Doing an appeal, if you're a solo practitioner, is not a small thing. It takes a lot of time and a lot of resources ... I thought there was quite a need up here."

SHARING RESOURCES

Feathers said the American Bar Association did a survey several years ago that revealed that only two or three states had pro bono appeals assistance.

"We realized we wanted to be in the pioneer (group) that provided free representation. We are a good group of core volunteers."

The release said the cases are screened by a seven-member subcommittee, which then selects a limited number for appeals.

Patnode said that, when the cases are selected, an attorney from a large law firm will usually take it. She said the firms are primarily from New York City and have the ability to put four or five attorneys on one appeal, recognizing that for rural attorneys, doing that would be a challenge.

"This is a ... tremendous sharing program between rural and urban attorneys. It's an opportunity for urban attorneys to connect with rural New York, and it's an opportunity for rural clients to have stellar representation."

Patnode said this type of program has been important to people in rural areas, such as the North Country.

"Many (appeal) cases are not heard because the resources don't go there."

Patnode said the Rural Law Center will continue to work on creating records on appeals, a challenging portion of the process that requires time, resources and a sense of how it should be organized.

"(The Rural Law Center) has been instrumental in creating and expanding this program," Feathers said.

HOPING TO EXPAND

The program is open only to New York's Third Judicial Department, which includes Franklin, Essex and Clinton counties, but Feathers hopes it will expand as the years progress.

"We hope it will be a stepping stone and that the next chapter ... (will be) to expand to other areas of the state."

She said that next year they may expand the program to the state's Fourth Judicial Department, but in the meantime, she knows that each case helped has a far-reaching impact.

"We often find that you're not only helping one person that's taking an appeal, that you're creating a precedent ... that can help many other people."

The income-eligibility cap for assistance is 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, meaning, for example, that the income limit for a family of three to apply would be $46,325.

Applications for the Pro Bono Appeals Program are available at the Bar Association's website.

Email Rebecca Webster at: rwebster@pressrepublican.com