Legislature Considers Issues Raised in GLC’s Rural Law Report

by Richard Rifkin, Legal Director, Government Law Center

March 2021

In 2019, the Government Law Center issued an important report entitled “Rural Law Practice in New York State.” The report, which was part of the Center’s Rural Law Initiative, analyzed the practice of law in the state’s rural counties, a topic that had not previously been examined in recent times.

The report was based on a survey of those lawyers who could be identified as practicing in rural communities. This survey, which contained questions about their practice and how it was meeting the legal needs of the communities they served, was mailed to those lawyers who could be identified as practicing in target communities. 

The Government Law Center reviewed their responses and summarized them in the report. The New York State Bar Association then followed by creating its
own task force on rural law practice, which examined the report and issued its own report with substantive recommendations.

All of this was intended to bring attention to the matters discussed in both reports, with the hope that they would be considered by those officials who were in a position to take steps to resolve the problems identified.

The Government Law Center report focused on four issues: 

  1. What are rural practices like? 
  2. The rewards and challenges of  rural practice, 
  3. Is there a shortage of lawyers in rural New York? 
  4. Possible solutions. 

There were several conclusions that were reached. 

The lawyers surveyed w ere generally engaged in “small, selfowned general practices.” Over half “are on the verge of retiring, or will be approaching
the age of retirement within 10 to 20 years.”

Basically, young lawyers are needed to establish practices in these communities.

A majority of the lawyers responding “agreed that rural clients struggle to afford legal services…. Serving this demographic - the working poor - which appear to be a large portion of rural residents, should be of primary concern for all stakeholders….” 

The question left open was what happens next.

Recently, we have begun to get the answer.

Three bills were introduced in the New York State Legislature that begin to address the topic. They are narrow in scope and deal with only small segments of what is needed.

All would begin to address the critical need to serve those residents with limited incomes. However, viewed in a larger scope, this is a strong indication that the issues raised in the Government Law Center’s initial report have made their way into the legislative process. 

These issues are at least at the initial stages of legislative consideration.

The three bills are different in specifics, but all, if enacted, would reduce the cost of legal services to those living in the rural areas of the state. 
S. 5292 would help those in writing their wills. Section 2402 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act now authorizes individual wills to be filed and
stored in the Surrogate’s Court of the county in which the person signing the will resides.

This is an important function, as it allows easy access to the will at the time that person dies. Currently, the court may charge $45 for this service, although each court can lower or eliminate the charge. This bill would totally eliminate the charge for this service. Thus, the cost of having a will
prepared and stored will be lower.

The second bill – S. 5293 – would allow the court system to reduce the costs of litigation in the town and village courts, which serve mainly rural areas. Section 2111 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules authorizes the Chief Administrative Judge of the state court system to permit the filing and serving of papers by electronic means in the courts designated in that statute. This bill would authorize this practice in the town and village courts which could result in reducing the cost of litigation in these courts. 

If the bill is enacted, the Chief Administrative Judge would then be able to authorize the filing of papers by electronic means. This would eliminate the need for an attorney to travel to the courthouse, often a long trip in rural areas, to file required papers. The attorney would no longer need to charge
clients for travel time, thereby reducing the cost of an attorney’s services. It also saves time for an individual who is selfrepresented.

Finally, S. 5294 would amend the Uniform Justice Court Act to increase the jurisdiction of the small claims parts of these courts from $3,000 to $10,000. These parts handle cases involving lesser amounts of money. Their procedures are easier to follow and far less formal than those in the parts of the court handling larger monetary cases. The objective is to resolve smaller monetary cases quickly and without the procedures required in larger cases. The bill would increase the $3,000 limitation for these simplified parts, which was set in 1977.

Enactment of these bills would be far from resolving the issues regarding rural legal services that were identified in the Government Law Center’s 2019 report. What is more significant is that the Legislature has recognized the issues raised in that report and has at least begun to deal with them. It
is the first sign that our state’s policymakers recognize that there are significant problems with the ability of those who reside in our rural communities to access legal services.