Senator Rachel May (D-Onondaga, Madison, Oneida), as Chair of the Commission of Rural Resources, introduced three pieces of legislation to improve rural justice. The legislation is being carried by Assemblymember Santabarbara in the Assembly.

New York has the largest concentration of attorneys in the United States, with 179,600 registered attorneys, and 155,369 of those attorneys have addresses in the state; however, despite having 17 percent of the population and 80 percent of the land space in the state, there are only 6,176 attorneys serving in the large swaths of rural New York, according to attorney registration data. In reality, the number of rural attorneys that actually offer legal services to individual members of the public is much smaller than that statistic indicates, since a sizable proportion of these attorneys do not offer legal services to the general public, such as district attorneys and members of the judiciary.

This is corroborated by data from rural county bars.

The bills are:

  • S.5292 — Eliminates filing fees for wills filed for safekeeping in the surrogate’s court.
  • S.5293 — Authorizes the chief administrator of the courts to promulgate rules authorizing an electronic filing program for commencement of civil actions and proceedings and filing and service of papers in town and village courts.
  • S.5294 — Raises the jurisdictional amount for small claims cases for the first time since 1977, from $3,000 to $10,000 in justice court.

Eliminate Will Filing Fees (S.5292)

One of the main factors that makes practice in rural New York difficult is that many clients are indigent, meaning they cannot afford standard hourly rates of most attorneys. As a result of the financial hardships many rural New York residents face, they have increasingly turned away from standard e instate planning. This has become problematic, especially as rural New Yorkers are getting older. By removing the barrier of a filing fee, solo practitioners who handle large numbers of will filings for their clients will be able to keep their rates down, and will benefit estates by encouraging the best practice of filing wills. Due to the financial hardships faced by many rural New Yorkers, and the amount of pro bono or low bono work that many rural attorneys do, the filing fee is an unnecessary barrier and is cost-prohibitive to many New Yorkers.

E-Filing Town and Village Court (S.5293)

In many places in rural New York, attorneys and clients may be far removed from their local town or village court as a result of the vast areas that rural attorneys must cover. The requirement that the attorney or complainant must appear in person to file civil complaints in town and village courts is a large hurdle for rural New Yorkers, who may be many miles from the court, and work during the day without any ability to travel to the court in order to file. This legislation has a twofold benefit for rural New Yorkers; first, it allows easier access to the court system for remote New Yorkers, whether they are attorneys, or non-attorneys. Second, allowing e-filing would allow attorneys who are not physically present in the rural community to serve the rural community remotely, keeping the cost to their clients low by not having to bill for travel time and the time it takes to file in-person. In sum, this bill allows for greater rural access to justice.

Raise Small Claims Cap (S.5294)

The small claims limit was last changed in 1977, when it was raised to $3,000. Despite this, inflation and the cost of living has increased substantially since the 1970s, making the $3,000 cap all but meaningless. As a result of the stagnating cap permitted in small claims, litigants are increasingly forced into the Supreme Court, where filing fees are much higher than in small claims courts. For many rural New Yorkers, the burdensome cost to filing in higher courts prevents them from optimally utilizing the court system. An additional consequence of this stagnating cap has been the overburdening of the higher courts as they are forced to handle an increasing number of cases. This bill seeks to bridge the gap between the reality of small claims in New York with the legislative maximum amount that can be brought in small claims. As a result of this legislation, the burden on higher courts will be lessened as people use their local small claims courts. Additionally, raising the limit would allow rural practitioners to handle more cases in their community while keeping costs down for their clients.

“The legislation introduced by New York State Senator Rachel May and New York Assemblymember Angelo Santabarbara will help ensure that the residents of New York’s rural communities have access to affordable legal representation, which currently can be difficult for them to obtain,” said New York State Bar Association President Scott M. Karson. “Only four percent of licensed New York attorneys practice in rural areas and many are at or near retirement age. By expanding the availability of e-filing, allowing more disputes to be resolved in small claims courts and eliminating a filing fee for wills, this package of bills makes it easier for rural attorneys to serve their clients in a cost-effective way – even if they live very far apart. These common-sense cost-saving measures are critical to the New York State Bar Association, which appreciates the Senator’s timely attention to these important access-to-justice issues – especially as the pandemic continues to inhibit in-person court proceedings.” 

“As Assembly Chair of the Commission on Rural Resources, I’m working to advance a comprehensive agenda this legislative session that takes on the issues facing our rural communities statewide and builds back our rural upstate stronger than ever,” said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara. “Many of these challenges are unique to rural communities and are often overlooked or under-appreciated. That’s why I’m putting forth this legislative rural justice package of bills that can help remove the barriers that keep rural residents from accessing our courts and services. I look forward to working with my colleagues to not only getting these bills passed, but also continuing important work on the many critical issues facing our rural New York communities that have only been exacerbated by COVID-19.”

“Our Upstate communities face increasingly difficult challenges that are often not addressed in Albany,” May said. “These challenges touch all corners of life and are often overlooked, such as the ability to retain the services of an attorney, or to seek restitution for lost property in small claims court. The Legislature must take steps to ensure that all New Yorkers, regardless of location or income, can fully utilize our justice system. These bills seek to level the field for our rural communities and improve access to legal services.”

By martha

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