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‘And justice for all’ imperiled

July 5, 2019 04:16 pm Updated: July 5, 2019 11:07 pm

The Twin Counties have a unique and challenging problem. It is nothing less than fulfilling the constitutional right of all persons accused of committing crimes to have the best possible defense.

A task force will look at the state of rural law practices across New York to determine if there is a lack of sufficient legal services. State Bar Association President Henry M. Greenberg announced Tuesday the creation of the Task Force on Rural Justice to examine the issue. Ninety-seven percent of attorneys in New York state live and work in either urban or suburban areas, causing concerns in the legal community.

“Research confirms what many attorneys in upstate New York already know — that there is an access-to-justice crisis in rural areas throughout New York,” Greenberg said.

Some attorneys are sounding the alarm over a lawyer shortage. In April, a report on rural law practices in New York state based on a survey of rural attorneys between August and October 2018 found that the majority of rural law practices are comprised of either solo attorneys or small practices of two to five lawyers. Many are overwhelmed by the volume of cases and limited resources, and have difficulty finding qualified attorneys for case referral. More than 50% of rural attorneys are either at retirement age or close to it.

Columbia County Public Defender Dominic J. Cornelius, who held the same post in Greene County, agreed with the survey’s finding that many rural, upstate attorneys are nearing retirement. The problem is especially acute in Greene County.

“A lot of the attorneys who handle criminal matters in Greene County have retired so the pool has gotten pretty small,” Cornelius said.

Cornelius added that the problem is not new. There was a significant shortage when he began practicing in 1995.

“The number of attorneys handling those types of matters has always been a problem,” Cornelius said.

The study found that 74.3% of lawyers responding to the survey were 45 years of age or older, suggesting the problem may only get worse in the coming decades.

Other attorneys are less concerned about the report. Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said he does not believe it is a local issue although some rural areas of the state may have a lack of attorneys.

“I think Columbia County is very lucky to have a substantial number of highly qualified attorneys in most areas of justice,” Czajka said. “So, although I recognize that may indeed be the case in some rural parts of upstate, I don’t think that is the case in Columbia County.”

A shortage of lawyers is unacceptable. The state task force’s job will be difficult but vital. It will examine the impact of rural attorney shortages, providing legal services in rural areas and the needs of rural attorneys. The key words here are “access to justice.” Access must be open to all. If it isn’t, a plank in the foundation of democracy will be lost.

But the real problem is the poor quality of our local courts, and the lack of eFiling here in Greene County.