New York Has Neglected Civil Justice Reform For Too Long, Leaving Injured New Yorkers Exposed to Abuse

By Latrice M. Walker | June 5, 2024

Our legal system was founded on the principle that all Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are entitled to equal access to justice. But if the vast majority of American workers lack the savings to cover a $500 emergency expense, how does the average New Yorker – let alone the 13.9% living in poverty – afford the tremendous price tag associated with challenging powerful corporations and insurance companies when they fall injured through no fault of their own?

I have dedicated my career to advancing a more equitable and just criminal justice system, from keeping minors out of Rikers as an attorney to staging a hunger strike in 2023 in opposition to the rollbacks of New York’s vital bail reform as an Assemblymember. Now, I am urging my colleagues in the Assembly to address the inequities that persist in our civil justice system, which has become a luxury that remains out of reach to the communities who need it most.

I see this reality too often in my district, where many of my constituents in the Brownsville and Ocean Hill communities of Brooklyn – the majority of whom are people of color – are living paycheck to paycheck. For those who suffer from personal injuries and are put out of work, most cannot afford to endure a years-long legal battle as medical bills pile up. As a result, many will often opt to settle with insurance companies for less than what they deserve instead of pursuing what they are rightfully owed in court.

To truly uphold the values of our legal system, New York must establish safe, ethical and transparent financial resources that ensure injured victims can afford their rightful day in court, regardless of their income, savings account balance, or credit score. That’s why I am proud to sponsor the Consumer Litigation Funding Act (A7655B).

Consumer litigation funding offers a financial lifeline for personal injury victims to cover the costs of day-to-day living expenses, such as groceries, rent, car payments, and medical care, as their case plays out in court. Unlike traditional bank loans or credit cards, consumer litigation funding requires no collateral, has no impact on credit scores, and only requires repayment if, and only if, a settlement is reached. It is a unique financial product designed to expand access to justice by empowering injured victims with legitimate claims to financially withstand drawn-out legal battles.

However, while consumer legal funding helps to level the playing field, New York currently lacks the regulation and oversight needed to protect victims from bad actors who seek to exploit, rather than support, the pursuit of justice. This leaves injured and vulnerable New Yorkers exposed to abusive practices such as deceptive contracts, hidden fees, and at worst, unscrupulous lawyers and funders who encourage injuries for profit.

The New York State Legislature must take action to ensure that victims seeking justice have access to non-predatory financial solutions that enable them to see their fair day in court without the risk of further harm. If enacted, the Consumer Litigation Funding Act would require funders to obtain a license and register with the state, mandate uniform and easy-to-read contracts available in the consumer’s first language, prohibit funding companies from engaging in deceitful or abusive practices, including providing kick-backs or referral fees to lawyers and medical providers, and impose penalties on funding companies who violate any of these requirements. It would also automatically void contracts if a funder knowingly participates in a conspiracy or attempts to incentivize victims to change their counsel or legal strategy.

This legislation has been introduced, yet failed to pass in the Assembly for seven years, despite two unanimous successful votes in the Senate. With each delay, vulnerable New Yorkers are left exposed to predatory and dangerous practices as they pursue the justice they deserve. There is no more time to waste.

To my colleagues in the Assembly — I urge you to join me in taking this next step to reform our civil justice system and vote ‘yes’ on the Consumer Litigation Funding Act. As elected officials, it is our duty to do everything in our power to uphold the core values upon which our nation was founded. We cannot continue to sit by and allow the pursuit of justice to be gatekept by insurance companies and big businesses, or exploited by predatory litigation funders as the result of our failure to regulate them. Let’s make 2024 the year we take action to ensure every New Yorker can safely access the justice they deserve.

Assemblywoman Latrice M. Walker represents the 55th Assembly District, which includes Brownsville and Ocean Hill in Brooklyn, and is the sponsor of Assembly Bill A7655B.