A State Supreme Court in Albany has ruled that a class-action lawsuit challenging New York State’s failure to provide effective counsel to poor New Yorkers accused of crimes will proceed to trial. The trial, expected to start this spring, will be the first of its kind in the nation. The lawsuit was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP.

Testimony so far presented in the case shows that “on a consistent basis, indigent criminal defendants are being arraigned without being afforded their right to counsel," wrote Justice Eugene Devine.

The decision came late Monday and was in response to requests both by the NYCLU and New York State to resolve some or all of the case without trial.

The lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring, et al., v. State of New York, was filed in 2007 on behalf of 20 defendants in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler and Washington counties. It charges New York with persistently failing its constitutional obligations to provide effective counsel to indigent New Yorkers charged in criminal court. The upcoming trial will be the first to take on an entire state’s system of indigent defense.

“There are substantial issues of fact to be resolved at trial," Devine wrote in his decision. "The Court has observed that the reputation of the public defense system in this State has deteriorated. This case shall determine whether there are systemic deficiencies in the existing public defense system or not.”

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman called the decision "a tentative step toward justice."

“We are confident that the constitutional rights of New Yorkers will prevail at trial,” Lieberman said.

The failures of New York’s public defense system are widely accepted. Its inadequacies have 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.

“This decision gives indigent defendants who have been denied counsel their day in court,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on the case. “The State of New York will have to face accountability for its decades-long failure to uphold the law requiring fair, competent and timely representation for the poor.”

“The proof at trial will confirm what study after study has shown for years – New York State is not living up to its constitutional obligation to provide counsel for poor defendants,” said Gary Stein, a partner at Schulte Roth & Zabel. “We are proud to join the NYCLU in this important effort and are determined to see this case through to its successful conclusion.”