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May 2017

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Lawyers honored for pro bono work

ALBANY — Dozens of lawyers met in Albany this week to honor their colleagues' commitment to providing free civil legal help to the Capital Region's neediest residents.

The Legal Project, which offers pro bono support in civil matters, held a ceremony Thursday night at The Egg to honor those attorneys donating their services and to raise money to continue assistance for local people facing bankruptcy, foreclosure, and most especially, victims of domestic violence.

According to executive director Lisa Frisch, the need for indigent legal services is growing. Her organization served 3,462 people in 2011, an increase of more than 20 percent from 2010.

Frisch said about 1,300 of those cases involved women in domestic violence situations, a number she said has doubled since 2009.

Tight economic times have decreased revenue sources that civil-legal service groups traditionally depend on. New York state's Interest on Lawyer Account (IOLA) fund has been a bedrock of such financing, but IOLA's money is generated by interest rates, which have plummeted. In 2009, the IOLA fund distributed close to million dollars, but by 2011, that had decreased to .5 million.

New York's Chief Judge, Jonathan Lippman, has made it his mission to close that gap. In 2011, the judiciary allocated million to civil legal assistance programs across the state. He created a task force in 2010 to research how the state can expand these services.

"Every civilized society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens," said Lippman at a hearing he convened September at Albany's Court of Appeals. "That is what this hearing is all about, to ensure that in this state, equal justice prevails in every way."

It's been estimated that 2.3 million New Yorkers go to court without an attorney each year.

Frisch said programs like The Legal Project can't just turn people away. "It can be life or death for some of these victims."

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 37.5 percent of female murder victims in 2010 were killed by a husband or boyfriend.

Which is why domestic violence is such a primary focus for The Legal Project. Two of the six attorneys presented with awards on Thursday night were recognized for their work with such victims, including the Brigid Nolan Memorial Award, named after 19-year-old Nolan who escaped a domestic violence situation with The Legal Projects' help, but died a year later after being hit by a drunk driver.

Her father, Ed Nolan, presented the award to recipient Amy Knussman, and said that without the program, his daughter might not have been able to escape her abuser.

"As much as friends and family try to talk to you, sometimes you need that person who's had the experience and professionalism to explain your options," said Nolan about the help of Legal Project attorney Jo Katz, who came to his daughter's apartment and spoke to her about pressing charges, which she eventually did.

"Her transformation began when Jo (Katz) sat down and talked to her," said Nolan.

asanto@timesunion.com • 518-454-5008 • @alysiasanto

» View the 2015 Pro Bono Awards