A NEW YORK legal panel has decided that while ``a thousand points of light'' sounds great, voluntarism may not be enough to address a shortage of legal services for the poor. The committee, appointed by New York state's chief judge, concluded that enormous numbers of people face profound noncriminal legal problems without the benefit of legal representation.
``It is grotesque to have a system in which the law guarantees to the poor that their basic human needs will be met, but which provides no realistic means with which to enforce that right,'' the panel's report says.
To remedy the situation, the panel has developed a controversial proposal that would require the 88,000 practicing lawyers in New York state to donate at least 20 hours a year to ``pro bono'' public service. New York could become the first state to institute compulsory service. Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and North Dakota are also considering it.
The panel of attorneys and judges agreed that society itself is responsible for providing legal services to the poor. But in the face of drastically reduced government spending, and what it says is insufficient voluntarism, those licensed to practice law have a special obligation, it concludes.
``The `lack of access' question goes to the very basis of our legal system,'' says Victor Marrero, a Manhattan lawyer who heads the state panel. ``If you don't have the means to obtain counsel, the rights and remedies of the legal system are meaningless.''
Although the state bar association and nonprofit legal aid groups have been promoting voluntary, pro bono legal work, leading advocates say the total number of attorneys participating is far too small to meet the need.
Archibald Murray, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, a New York City group, says he has 900 volunteer lawyers serving 25,000 clients. But ``the number of needy persons far outstrips that. There are probably 1.5 million poor people in New York City, many of whom need these services,'' he says. ``These people are on the margins. They're desperate, they need help, and there's not enough available from governmental sources.''
Mr. Marrero says panel members are concerned about a right to counsel in areas that include matrimonial (divorce and child custody), health, public benefits (denied or wrongfully terminated), and consumer cases.
But he says the greatest need is in the housing field: 25,000 to 30,000 tenants receive eviction orders in New York City housing court every year. This figure excludes those who simply move out without contesting the matter. ``In 90 percent of the cases in housing court, tenants do not have a lawyer, but 80 percent to 90 percent of the landlords have representation,'' he says.
Sol Corbin, a panel member who opposed the group's recommendation, agrees with the concept of pro bono work, but does not think the group proved a need for mandatory service. ``I thought there was inadequate evidence of a crisis of such magnitude to warrant the conscription of lawyers, rather than the continuation of a voluntary system,'' he says.
Mr. Corbin says if such a move is necessary, then there is no basis for exemptions that were also recommended. Those would permit members of large firms to pool their hours and assign them all to one attorney; members of small firms could avoid service by paying $50 an hour for legal-aid groups to hire other attorneys.
The panel will hold hearings in the fall, and the chief judge is expected to make a decision by the end of the year. Marrero says the proposal could be implemented in a variety of ways, and that legislation may not be needed.