New York soon will become the first state to automatically assign free lawyers to every homeowner facing foreclosure. By adding legal input to the more than 80,000 pending foreclosures in the state, some of which have been plagued by serious documentation problems, the move by New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman could reverberate far beyond state lines.
It “will shift the debate,” Donald Saunders, director of the civil division of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, told The New York Times. “Everything Judge Lippman is saying will be looked at closely elsewhere.”
The current foreclosure landscape is an “uneven playing field” for consumers, most of whom have little knowledge of foreclosure law, and who find themselves overmatched in court by banks’ lawyers in court, Lipmann said. The system inevitably benefits lenders over homeowners, according to a recent report by the New York state court system.
In his state of the judiciary speech, Judge Lippman cited the 1963 ruling by the Supreme Court that state courts are required to provide legal counsel to destitute defendants in criminal cases.
“Today it is an equally obvious truth that people in civil cases dealing with the necessities of life can’t get a fair day in court without a lawyer,” he said in his speech.
The pro bono legal help will be provide by legal aid groups. To help them, Judge Lippman has requested that the state legislature commit to spending an additional $100 million over the next four years. The program will begin in Queens and Orange counties over the next few weeks, and will spread across the state by the end of the year.
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