Legal Information for Families Today

As a board member of Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), a non-profit organization that helps unrepresented litigants in New York City Family Court, I was proud to help organize a recent panel discussion addressing race and poverty in the New York State Family Court. Moderated by LIFT Executive Director Cathy Cramer, the panelists included the Honorable Edwina Mendelson, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge; former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson; and Proskauer Pro Bono Partner, Bill Silverman. Secretary Johnson is responsible for a recent report on institutional racism in the New York State Court System, where he characterized certain courts, including the Family Court, as providing a “second class system of justice for people of color in New York State.” Bill Silverman co-authored a recent report on behalf of the New York City Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts which addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the New York City Family Court and how the crisis laid bare longstanding inequities. Judge Mendelson is responsible for the Court’s justice initiatives.

To consider the great need, among people of limited means, for civil legal services during the COVID-19 crisis, a good starting point is where we were before the crisis started.  In short, civil legal resources for the poor in the United States are woefully inadequate.  According to the Legal Services Corporation, which documents the justice gap in America, between 62% and 72% of civil legal needs among low-income Americans are addressed inadequately or not at all.  Indeed, the United States fares very poorly in this regard when compared to other western democracies.

The current health crisis would be devastating under any circumstances but, from a legal standpoint, this crisis has laid bare the long-term challenges we face. 

Thanks to advances in technology, the fight for equal access to justice has the potential of making enormous strides. A great example is the project Proskauer helped spearhead with the nonprofit Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), which is now connecting pro se litigants in family court throughout New York State with pro bono services through a convenient online platform. Programs like this represent a tremendous leap forward in ensuring adequate legal guidance regardless of one’s location, but the requirement of sufficient internet access leaves some in the dark.

The lack of sufficient, reliable internet connectivity disproportionately affects rural Americans – a disparity New York State calls “the digital divide.” In a recent report issued by Albany Law School, 573 rural lawyers were surveyed about the various challenges they face. Of significance, “the survey revealed repeated complaints about rural broadband/internet access and technology communication shortcomings in rural communities.”  A subpar technology infrastructure increases the cost of operation for these practitioners, especially when it comes to the many hours of driving that could be avoided if high-speed internet services and reliable cellphone service were universally available.  

As a member of the professional services team, the non-legal side of the Firm, I have few reasons to ever enter a courthouse. Unlike my colleagues in our Litigation Department, my role at the Firm does not require me to observe hearings, converse with judges, or discuss the legal and administrative challenges that are pervasive in our court system. Yet, last week I found myself doing just that. Through a program called “Judge for a Day” organized by Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), I had the unique opportunity to join the LIFT staff at the Kings County Family Court in downtown Brooklyn for a fully immersive court experience.

The fast pace of technological change has left the poor and unrepresented behind in many parts of America. But in New York State family courts, Proskauer lawyers are part of an exciting new pilot project spearheaded by the non-profit Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT) which connects people representing themselves in family court with pro bono attorneys over a virtual platform.

LIFT screens the litigants, arranges the virtual meetings, trains the volunteer lawyers, and has experienced staff attorneys available to answer questions and handle any technical issues. The volunteer lawyers don’t need to leave their desks to provide legal advice and information to litigants who can connect from home or any quiet place with a laptop or smart phone. These videoconference sessions address child support, custody, and visitation, and are limited in scope and duration. The representation ends at the end of the virtual session.