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New York State Settles Hurrell-Harring Indigent Defense Challenge

In May of 2010, a divided New York State Court of Appeals reinstated a complaint brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of indigent criminal defendants in Hurrell-Harring v. New York, 15 N.Y.3d 8 (2010) that alleged New York's public defense system was inadequate to ensure the constitutional right to counsel. The Court recognized a cognizable claim for relief based on allegations that the plaintiffs had been denied the right to counsel by reason of insufficient compliance with the constitutional mandate of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). Rather than view the allegations made in the complaint as claims based on ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), they found the allegations supported a claim that the plaintiffs had no counsel or had counsel in name only. For further information about the complaint, see NACDL's joint amicus curiae brief in the Hurrell-Harring case.

New York has no state-wide system for the provision of indigent defense. Like the majority of states in the country, New York leaves the provision of indigent defense in the hands of individual counties. Even before the NYCLU's lawsuit, a 2006 report from the New York State Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services concluded that “nothing short of major, far-reaching, reform can ensure that New York meets its constitutional and statutory obligations to provide quality representation to every indigent person accused of a crime or other offense." That report went on to recommend substantially more funding for the provision of indigent defense as well as a statewide defender system.

Hurrell-Harring et al. v. New York, settled on October 21, 2014, the eve of trial. While the settlement applies to only five of the 57 NY counties, it can be used as a blueprint that can be used by other counties in New York to meet the obligation to provide adequate representation to indigent defendants statewide. Only last month, the U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the federal government, filed a statement of interest in the litigation that, while not taking a position on the merits of plaintiffs' claims in this particular case, declared that the right to counsel "is so fundamental to the operation of the criminal justice system that its diminishment erodes the principles of liberty and justice that underpin all of our civil rights in criminal proceedings."

NACDL Indigent Defense Training and Reform Director Colette Tvedt advises that the settlement calls for sweeping reforms in New York's public defender system, including: (i) representation at every criminal defendant's arraignment/first appearance; (ii) setting workload standards to ensure that defense lawyers have the time and resources to provide effective and zealous assistance of counsel; (iii) requiring that New York to spend $4 million over the next two years to increase attorney/client communications, ensure that lawyers are using investigators, interpreters, and experts in their cases, and to improve the qualifications, training and supervision of lawyers who represent indigent defendants; (iv) increasing state-level oversight by the Office of Indigent Legal Services ensuring the constitutional provision of public defender services in the five counties; (v) guaranteeing the commitment of the State of New York to provide sufficient resources to ensure implementation of the reforms mandated by the settlement; (vi) requiring that the plaintiffs receive regular reports that the parties are in compliance with the settlement and, if not, they can return to court to enforce it. NACDL's Indigent Defense Committee is currently studying the details of the settlement agreement.

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