Tucked amid the thousands of pages of the recently signed $229 billion New York State budget is a long-awaited pay raise for attorneys representing low-income state residents, including parents and children in family court, and a cost-of-living adjustment for human services workers.
This month, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) reached a hard-fought budget deal with the state’s Democratic-majority lawmakers that she said would make the state “more affordable, more livable and safer.”
Along with new investments in child care and tax credits for families with children, the budget finalized May 3 for the 2024 fiscal year increases pay for private family court attorneys, whose rate has remained at $75 an hour for almost 20 years.
Human services workers will also see a 4% cost-of-living adjustment in 2024. The amount is lower than the 8.5% that industry advocates sought, but higher than what Hochul proposed in her executive budget. Last year, this group of workers — who include social workers, case planners and youth coordinators — received 5.4%.
Pressure has been building since the pandemic to acknowledge these often undervalued employees. In 2021, New York City human service organizations called on Mayor Eric Adams through a #JustPay advocacy campaign to raise wages for city- and state-funded workers and establish automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments.
Public advocacy has also been waged on behalf of underpaid attorneys who handle family court cases.
After years of critical reports and legal action, beginning next year, some attorneys who handle child abuse and neglect cases or represent youth in the justice system will see their hourly rates double to $158 per hour — the first pay increase since 2004.
The recently passed budget includes $92 million to offset county costs for the pay increases to these lawyers and others assigned to represent low-income New Yorkers in criminal courts.
In early February, Patricia Warth, director of the state’s Office of Indigent Legal Services, argued for the wage increase at a state budget hearing. Warth described family court attorneys’ caseloads as “significantly higher” than those in criminal court, leaving attorneys little time to provide rights guaranteed under the Constitution to low-income clients.
“There has been no comparable effort by the state to appropriate the funding needed to bring the quality of family court representation to a constitutionally compliant level,” she said.
The following month, a group of judges across New York City wrote in a letter to Gov. Hochul that the inadequate pay “infringes daily on the fundamental constitutional rights of indigent children, most of whom are Black and Brown.”
The longstanding effort to increase the hourly wages of court-appointed attorneys in family court also included a 2021 lawsuit against the state filed by a group of local bar associations.
According to the suit, children and indigent parents faced a “grim reality” of overloaded and overburdened attorneys who couldn’t ensure a timely and fair court process. The inability to retain and hire enough lawyers has had real-life consequences in New York, with children remaining in foster care for longer periods of time and parents losing their rights to see their kids, the suit stated.
In 2019, the Commission on Parental Legal Representation, which examined the state of the family court, called on New York’s former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to address an “ongoing crisis’’ and provide attorneys with enough resources “necessary to deliver the effective assistance to which parents are constitutionally entitled.”
Independent attorney groups such as The Legal Aid Society and Bronx Defenders — who make up a significant segment of the bar that represents kids and parents in New York City — will not qualify for the raises next year. But their representatives have asked the Office of Indigent Legal Services and the Office of Court Association to include funding in the budget that would increase their salaries as well.
“Without this immediate funding, Albany will jeopardize New York’s most vulnerable children by denying those who are dedicated to their representation a living wage,” Redmond Haskins, spokesperson for Legal Aid Society, said in a written statement.