Room 607 at Bronx County Courthouse in New York isn't a typical courtroom. The judge's bench is empty, and the jury box, too. A fax machine stands where a court reporter might otherwise sit, and filing cabinets line one of the walls.
A dozen homeowners and bank lawyers sit waiting for their cases to come up. When they do, they walk to one of two desks set up at opposite ends of the cavernous room to talk not to a judge but to a court attorney.These are foreclosure conferences: When a bank wants to foreclose on a home whose owner is behind on mortgage payments, in New York the case has to come here, to court. The purpose of a foreclosure conference is to try to reach an agreement to modify the loan and prevent the foreclosure.
Home foreclosures have soared in the US in recent years —first, because of the prevalence of subprime loans, and then because high unemployment and underemployment have caused more homeowners to fall behind. Last year, banks started foreclosure proceedings for nearly 3 million homes nationwide.
In the US, the right to a lawyer paid by the state applies only for criminal cases, not civil cases like foreclosures. Though hundreds of organizations nationwide provide civil legal aid, these do not come anywhere near meeting the demand for such services. Across the US, civil legal aid providers serve only about one-fifth of the needs of low income Americans. New York City's largest civil legal aid provider, the Legal Aid Society, which has 1,400 employees, including 800 lawyers, can only help one out of every nine people who visit its offices seeking help.
Moreover, the struggling economy over the past few years has exacerbated the problem: On the one hand, demand for civil legal aid has grown because of a rise in problems such as debt, foreclosures, and welfare needs.On the other, the major sources of funding for legal aid— federal and state grants, and IOLTA funds (special lawyers' accounts that pay interests toward civil legal aid)— have shrunk.
In the latest blow, on Nov. 17 2011, Congress slashed $56 million in funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the congressionally-mandated agency that funds 136 civil legal aid providers nationwide. LSC funding pays for about 44 percent of civil legal aid in the US and is the single largest source of funding for these services. $56 million represents 15% of its budget.
Among the nonprofits that will lose funding is Legal Services NYC, New York's second-largest legal aid provider.
喪失經費補助的非營利組織中包括了紐約市法律服務（Legal Services NYC），紐約第二大法律扶助提供組織。
Legal Services NYC has suffered a wave of cuts. It lost 4 percent of its budget in 2011 and hundreds of thousands of dollars for 2012. It will also lose 20 percent of its LSC grant for 2013 and 2014 under changes to the government's formula for distributing LSC money. Now Congress' decision to cut LSC grants by 15 percent will mean even less funding.
Jill Siegel, a lawyer at Legal Services NYC, says the cuts are devastating not only to her organization but to the communities it helps. Legal Services NYC handles everything from foreclosures to wrongful（譯註一） cancellation of welfare benefits and child custody battles in domestic violence cases. Considering how complex the legal system is, navigating any of these proceedings without the help of a lawyer is like running an "obstacle course," she says.
Siegel is the deputy project director at Legal Services NYC's Bronx division. The Bronx is New York City's poorest borough— and one of the poorest areas of the entire
At Bronx County Courthouse, in a small office next-door to Room 607, Legal Services NYC offers free legal counsel to low-income homeowners who risk losing their homes. Though the home ownership rate in the Bronx is low, the foreclosure rate here is high. The banks almost always have lawyers, but most of the homeowners don't.
Justin Haines, the director of the office, says foreclosure is "all about power dynamics."（譯註二）The loan conditions that banks offer are often so complicated that even lawyers have difficulty deciphering them. Without legal aid, homeowners are less likely to successfully negotiate a better loan.
This is true in most civil legal matters. In a 2009 report on the US "justice gap" — the number of Americans who need legal counsel but cannot afford it — the LSC presented
studies indicating that litigants with legal counsel fare better than those without.
But Haines' office is understaffed and can only represent a small portion of the homeowners who ask for help. In most cases, the office only helps homeowners prepare papers to represent themselves in court.
"I wish I had three times as much staff," Haines said. His office employs three full-time attorneys and two paralegals, and is unlikely to hire more anytime soon. It originally received state funding as part of a government program to prevent foreclosures, but last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo cut the program. Legal Services NYC was only one of many nonprofits that lost funding.
The situation is similar at Housing Court, where landlords and tenants go to resolve rent and eviction disputes.
At Bronx Housing Court, on a typical day, the courtrooms and hallways are packed with tenants waiting their turn before a judge. Sometimes the line to enter the courthouse winds out the door and along the front of the building.
While the vast majority of the tenants do not have legalcounsel, the opposite holds true for the landlords.
"The landlords pay $150 an hour for a lawyer," said WandaSalaman, director of Mothers on the Move, a local nonprofit in the Bronx. "The tenants can't afford that."
布朗克斯當地的非營利組織Mothers on the Move執行長Wanda Salaman表示，「房東花每小時150元的代價聘請一名律師，房客付不起這樣的價錢。」
Residents in the area often come to Mothers on the Move for advice on eviction cases, and Salaman refers them to legal services providers for help.
當地居民常常到「Mothers on the Move」尋求關於房屋收回案件的建議，Salaman轉介這些居民至法律服務提供組織尋求協助。
Haines previously worked with such cases at the Housing Court office of the Legal Aid Society, New York's other main provider of civil legal aid. He spent most of his time asking the court to cancel unfair contracts between tenants and landlords. Some landlords compel tenants to sign agreements that they cannot read and do not understand, under threat of eviction. What the tenants, many of whom do not speak English, do not realize, is that in New York, their landlords cannot evict them without a court order, and getting a court order takes months. Judges will usually cancel any agreements that clearly violate the tenant's rights, but most tenants do not realize this, let alone know how to ask for this in court.
Likewise, having an advocate can make all the difference in public assistance cases. To receive public assistance (also called welfare), an individual or family must meet certain criteria and follow strict regulations for attending work training and other meetings. When the city government believes that a family or individual has violated welfare regulations, such as by skipping meetings, it suspends or cancels the benefits. But a 2010 study by the Urban Justice
Center, another New York legal aid provider, found that 86 percent of the city’s decisions to cancel benefits were incorrect. Many cancellations are the result of simple clerical errors by the Human Resources Administration, such as forgetting to write down that someone attended a meeting.
同樣的，有訴訟代理人在社會救助的案件中會造成相當不同的結果。要獲得社會救助（或稱福利），個人或家庭必須符合特定條件以及遵守參與工作訓練以及其他會議的嚴格規定。如果市政府認定某家庭或某人違反福利規定，例如缺席會議，就會暫停或取消福利。但是2010年都市正義中心（Urban Justice Center，另一個紐約的法律扶助組織）報告指出，市政府取消福利的決定中，有86%是錯誤的。許多取消福利的原因是人力資源局（Human Resources Administration）的辦事員工作失誤，例如忘了記錄某人曾參加會議。
Welfare cancellations can be appealed, but winning the appeal without a lawyer is tricky. Unfortunately, few legal aid providers have staff dedicated to helping with these appeals.
Legal Services NYC has a small office in the Bronx dealing with welfare cases, but the office is severely understaffed. "We have to decide which cases would be more difficult for an unrepresented person," said Maryanne Joyce, a lawyer at the office. Joyce specializes in second appeals at Bronx Supreme Court（譯註三）.
TARGETED AND NON-TARGETED FUNDING
Compared with other forms of civil legal aid, Joyce said resources for welfare cases are especially limited because much funding for legal aid comes from targeted programs.
One example was New York's budget for foreclosure prevention. Government programs like this offer funding for specific forms of legal aid — usually for causes with strong public support, like homeownership. Helping welfare recipients is not a popular cause.
"It's not an area that people find compelling," said Joyce, whose unit has just two staff lawyers and one paralegal. "So it's not easy to fundraise."
This is why the LSC is so important. LSC funding is nontargeted. That means Legal Services NYC can apply LSC money where it's needed most, as long as it serves the population that qualifies for legal services under LSC regulations. Clients must fall below the income threshold of 125 percent of the national poverty line, or about $28,000 per year for a family of four.
Another key source of funding is IOLTA (interest on lawyers trust accounts), a system of collecting interest on special bank accounts to pay for civil legal aid. But IOLTA funds — or, in New York State, IOLA (interest on lawyer account) — have suffered in recent years, too.
IOLTA programs, which exist in all 50 states, work like this: When a client entrusts his lawyer with funds, if the amount is too small to earn interest, the lawyer holds the money in an IOLTA account. The account gathers interest by holding small sums of money for many clients. IOLTA programs fund civil legal aid providers without costing taxpayers, lawyers, or clients a dime. In most states, lawyers are required to participate in the program.
Back in the heady days of the real estate boom, IOLTA accounts were doing exceedingly well. "I started in 2005," Haines said, referring to his previous job at the Legal Aid Society. "And in 2007, we were all dreaming, finding the holes in our work." The Legal Aid Society was busy expanding and improving its services.
Then the market collapsed. IOLA, which supports around 70 legal aid organizations, held $32 million in 2008. A year later, it held $6.5 million. Legal aid providers found themselves struggling just to maintain the same level of services. To mitigate the crisis, the New York state judiciary injected funding. For 2010-2011, it provided $15 million.
At a protest outside Manhattan Supreme Court in November, lawyers, homeowners and state senators called on Governor Cuomo to reinstate funding for foreclosure prevention services. A resident of Brooklyn spoke in tears about how a flood ruined his home, but his insurance company would not pay for the damage until a legal aid lawyer helped him.
The demonstrators' message to the governor was simple: Cutting state funding for legal aid does not save money in the long run.
In 2008, the IOLA office released a study of the direct financial benefits that result from legal aid programs in New York. Benefits include, for example, saving money on homeless shelters by helping tenants avoid eviction from their apartments. In total, the office concluded that $200 million worth of legal aid produced $430 million in economic benefits and savings.
In the case of foreclosures, Haines says legal aid pays off because foreclosures reduce the city's tax base and lower the property value of the neighborhood.
Foreclosures also increase homeless shelter costs, since many families that land in debt and lose their homes end up in emergency shelters. Homelessness is currently at its worst in New York City since the 1930s: More than 40,000 people are homeless, and about 10 percent of them lost their homes through foreclosures. The city is required by court order to provide emergency shelter for all homeless families and individuals.
Legal aid supporters say Governor Cuomo should have factored in these costs before deciding to cut funding for the state's foreclosure prevention program. State Senator Adriano Espaillat said compared to the losses in tax revenue and property value caused by foreclosures, spending $25 million on the program "is a drop in the bucket."
At the protest in November, one demonstrator held up a sign that summed it up like this: "Every home saved = a stronger economy."
11月的抗議中，一名抗議者舉起牌子，寫著：「住者有其屋，經濟一定強（Every home saved = a stronger economy）」。