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State Senator

Martin M. Looney

President Pro Tempore

Representing New Haven, Hamden & North Haven

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Contact: Adam Joseph
860-240-8641

April 21, 2016

Looney & Coleman Lead Senate Passage of Bills to Improve Access to Legal Representation for Low-income Residents

Senate President Martin M. Looney (D-New Haven) and Senator Eric Coleman (D-Bloomfield) today led Senate passage of two bills that will help protect access to legal representation for low-income Connecticut residents.

Senate Bill 428 provides two significant sources of critically needed funding for Connecticut’s financially struggling Legal Aid offices. First, the bill ads over one million dollars of yearly funding to the state IOLTA account, which funds legal aid. Second, the bill for the first time adds delivery of legal services to the poor to the permissible uses of the Superior Court’s Client Security Fund. Together, they will likely provide over $2 million dollars a year of additional funding to the Legal Aid programs going forward.

“Lack of access to legal representation is a national issue, and one that greatly affects Connecticut residents,” said Sen. Looney. “Despite the fact that the Connecticut Judicial Branch takes its obligation to provide access to justice profoundly seriously, the state’s legal assistance agencies are tasked with providing representation to thousands of low-income residents which has created a funding crisis. Today, the Senate took action to address this funding crisis.”

“There is a growing concern in this country that we are developing a two-tiered civil justice system in America: one, a first-class justice system where the accused have the means to afford legal counsel. The other, a second-class justice system where economically disadvantaged citizens have little or no access to legal counsel,” said state Senator Eric Coleman (D-Bloomfield), who is Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee. “This legislation will help remedy a portion of this growing disparity and will help ensure equal access and equal representation for all citizens in our judicial system.”

“We are incredibly pleased and grateful that the Senate supports access to justice for residents of the state who need lawyers to meet their basic human needs,” said Susan Garcia Nofi, Executive Director of New Haven Legal Assistance.

In 2013—2014, Connecticut Legal Services was able to open only about 3,400 cases out of the roughly 19,000 requests it received.

According to the Connecticut Bar Association, in 2007, IOLTA brought in over $20 M to fund legal services and, since then, revenue has decreased 90 percent. Court fees were last increased in 2012 and have not filled the funding gap for legal services. Even if pro bono efforts were doubled in the state that would still not fill the need for legal services.

Additionally, the Senate voted in favor of Senate Bill 426 which creates of a task force to study the problem of the lack of access to legal counsel in civil matters in Connecticut courts, especially among poor residents who could be most adversely affected by the outcomes.

Senate Bill 426 would establish a task force for the purpose of studying the nature, extent and consequences of Connecticut’s unmet needs for legal representation in civil matters, especially those involving essential human needs. The task force would report its findings, then make detailed recommendations to the legislature on how to secure access to justice and legal representation in civil legal matters.

According to the Judicial Branch:

  • In Family law cases, 85 percent of proceedings have at least one party that is self-represented
  • In Housing matters, 75 percent have at least one party that is self-represented
  • Overall: 25 percent of civil cases have at least one party that is self-represented

Earlier this year, Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers and Connecticut Bar Association President William H. Clendenen, Jr. both testified in support of Senate Bill 426.

“I am grateful to Senator Looney for his stalwart support of this initiative and for proposing this bill, so that we can begin discussing this critically important issue,” Chief Justice Rogers said in her March testimony before the Judiciary Committee. “Other states are addressing this subject, and I believe strongly that it is time for Connecticut to accelerate serious and comprehensive discussions regarding people who cannot afford representation in certain types of cases . . . We have people in our civil and family courts every day who are unable to afford attorneys. Yet, is there less at stake if someone faces jail over child support payments? Is there less at stake if litigants are the victims of domestic violence or risk losing their home?”

“There has developed a growing recognition that our civil justice system has two classes of justice. The well to do and parties of means have access to a first class system of justice with full access to counsel. Low income and other economically disadvantaged individuals have little, if any, access to counsel resulting in second class justice,” Clendenen testified in March. “The proposed blue ribbon Task Force would be comprised of all of the necessary stakeholders in solving Connecticut’s justice gap. The Task Force is our best chance to provide cost effective equal access to justice for Connecticut’s neediest. We cannot lose sight of the fact that basic human rights such as food, shelter, education and healthcare are routinely denied to Connecticut citizens because of their poverty. These basic human rights are not denied because they are unavailable, but rather because our legal system is not available to those in Connecticut too poor to hire a lawyer to protect them.”

 

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