New York’s panel attorneys have not received a raise since 2004, when their hourly rates were set at $75 for felonies and family court matters, and $60 for misdemeanors. Even if those sums had simply risen with inflation, they would be about $114 and $93 per hour.
Panel attorneys in South Dakota, where the cost of living is half what it is New York, are paid $101 per hour.
Because these attorneys are independent contractors, unaffiliated with organizations like the Legal Aid Society or Bronx Defenders, they have to pay for their own health care, office spaces and other expenses, further driving down their effective salaries.
As a result, there are fewer lawyers willing to work these high-stress, high-stakes jobs.
Cynthia Godsoe, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who previously worked in family court, said that the failure to raise the rates reflected the fundamental indifference of New York City political authorities to the lives of the most vulnerable.
“Family court, where these court cases happen, is a poor people’s court, by definition,” she said. “Not paying these attorneys remotely close to what they need to be able to do a good job, reflects either ignorance about or disdain for those people’s fundamental rights as parents and their lives as families.”
Over the past six years in Manhattan alone, the number of panel attorneys available to take on new cases in family court has nearly halved, to 39 from 70. In the Bronx, during that period, the number dropped to 48 from 80. And each borough has added only one new panel attorney since January 2021. Brooklyn and Queens have each lost about a fifth of their panel attorneys since 2011.
The lack of lawyers has left those who remain vastly overworked, with several refusing to take on new cases altogether. When attorneys are not available, catastrophe often follows. In a letter filed in court, one panel attorney, Fredericka Bashir, said that consequences frequently included:
Victims of domestic violence being denied protection from abusers, leaving those people vulnerable to being harmed again.
Children being held in foster care, because there were no lawyers to seek their return to their parents or guardians.
People being wrongly accused of domestic violence who, because an order of protection has been issued, are forced to leave their homes without being heard in court.
When called to elaborate last week, Ms. Bashir was, of course, in the midst of a trial. When she was able to speak, she gave a specific example, of a client who had come to court without a lawyer several times, seeking an order of protection against a live-in boyfriend.