- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Attorneys defending the poor across New York averaged 680 cases last year, nearly double the recommended limit, even though their ranks and funding increased from the year before, according to a report Wednesday.

They were assigned 386,823 new cases last year in the 57 counties outside New York City, the Office of Indigent Legal Services reported. Those included 70,000 felonies, 90,000 family court cases and nearly 221,000 misdemeanors, according to the report.

Overall funding for indigent legal services rose to $175 million last year, an increase of about $9 million.

“We’re proposing a significant budget expansion,” said William Leahy, director of the state office. “We’re ready to do for the rest of the state of New York what the state has done for New York City.”

The city has reduced its caseloads to within the guidelines over the past few years with funding from the state judiciary budget, Leahy said. Most of the upstate funding comes from the counties, with some additional state money.

Seymour James, attorney-in-chief for the Legal Aid Society in New York City, said their “dramatic” reduction from an average of 682 cases per attorney to just under 400 and the hiring of about 250 attorneys followed 2009 state legislation. Their lawyers now spend far more time speaking with clients, interviewing witnesses and researching and preparing motions.

“There’s been a significant improvement in the quality of our representation,” James said.

Lawyers for other poor defendants in the state come from 72 institutional providers and 58 assigned counsel programs, the report said. Last year, the number of attorneys, including those working part-time, for institutional providers rose to the full-time equivalent of 701 or an increase of 47. Other staff also increased.

Their average caseload declined from 719 the year before. However, attorneys for two providers averaged more than 1,600 cases each.

The New York Civil Liberties Union is scheduled to go to trial next month in a lawsuit arguing that New York systemically provides inadequate staff and money for constitutionally required defense lawyers. The suit, first filed in 2007, seeks defense attorneys at all arraignments, smaller caseloads and better funding with the state taking over the county-based system.

In a report last week examining public defenders in five counties, the group called state efforts to defend the poor in criminal cases an abject failure. Executive Director Donna Lieberman said the new report makes that case.

“Every day in courtrooms across most of the state, New Yorkers are denied their right to meaningful representation just because they are poor,” she said. “Justice cannot be served under these conditions.”

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