Ontario Legal System Fails Lawsuit
Posted in the Ontario County Forum
#1 May 9, 2010
In 4-3 vote New York State's highest court says indigent defense lawsuit can go forward
New York State's highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled 4-3 yesterday in Hurrell-Harring v State of New York, that a lawsuit against the state, which is seeking a declaration that the state's system of legal defense for poor people is broken, can go forward. The Court of Appeals' decision overturned a lower court that had voted 3-2 to dismiss the case.
While Judge Lippman acknowledged that the state's arguments had some merit, in the end he believed that the plaintiffs had made a strong case for their lawsuit going forward. Said Lipmann, "While it is defendants' position, and was evidently that of the Appellate Division majority, that the complaint contains only performance-based claims for ineffective assistance, our examination of the pleading leads us to a different conclusion. "
Then Lippman summarized the plaintiffs' complaints about ineffective counsel:
"According to the complaint, ten of the 20 plaintiffs — two from Washington, two from Onondaga, two from Ontario and four from Schuyler County — were altogether without representation at the arraignments held in their underlying criminal proceedings. Eight of these unrepresented plaintiffs were jailed after bail had been set in amounts they could not afford. It is alleged that the experience of these plaintiffs is illustrative of what is a fairly common practice in the aforementioned counties of arraigning defendants without counsel and leaving them, particularly when accused of relatively low level offenses, unrepresented in subsequent proceedings where pleas are taken and other critically important legal transactions take place. One of these plaintiffs remained unrepresented for some five months and it is alleged that the absence of clear and uniform guidelines reasonably related to need has commonly resulted in denials of representation to indigent defendants based on the subjective judgments of individual jurists."
"In addition to the foregoing allegations of outright non-representation, the complaint contains allegations to the effect that although lawyers were eventually nominally appointed for plaintiffs, they were unavailable to their clients — that they conferred with them little, if at all, were often completely unresponsive to their urgent inquiries and requests from jail, sometimes for months on end, waived important rights without consulting them, and ultimately appeared to do little more on their behalf than act as conduits for plea offers, some of which purportedly were highly unfavorable. It is repeatedly alleged that counsel missed court appearances, and that when they did appear they were not prepared to proceed, often because they were entirely new to the case, the matters having previously been handled by other similarly unprepared counse. There are also allegations that the counsel appointed for at least one of the plaintiffs was seriously conflicted and thus unqualified to undertake the representation."
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