A state appellate court today granted class action status to the New York Civil Liberties Union’s landmark lawsuit charging New York State with failing its constitutional duty to provide effective counsel to poor New Yorkers accused of crimes.

The unanimous ruling by the Appellate Division, Third Department reverses a lower court’s decision to deny the NYCLU’s motion for class certification.

The lawsuit, filed in 2007 by the NYCLU and the law firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP, charges that poor criminal defendants are being unconstitutionally denied their right to a lawyer and seeks systemic reform. The case was filed by 20 defendants in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties who have encountered an unconstitutional public defense system and sought to act as class representatives on behalf of all indigent defendants relying on public defense services in those counties.

“By granting class action status, the court has authorized the case to proceed as a broad systemic challenge to New York’s public defense system,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, lead attorney in the case. “Now the case is about all criminal defendants who rely on public defense services, not just the 20 individuals named in our lawsuit.”

The failures of the state’s fractured public defense system are widely accepted. The inadequacy of the patchwork county-driven, largely county-funded scheme has been well-documented for more than 40 years in dozens of reports by legal advocacy organizations, professional associations and government commissions. In June 2006, a commission appointed by then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye concluded that the state’s public defense system is “severely dysfunctional” and “structurally incapable” of providing people effective legal representation. But the State Legislature has failed to act.