The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly unanimously voted to create an ad hoc committee to explore the feasibility of creating a Cornell Student Legal Services center at its meeting Monday.
The proposed center would offer free legal advice to Cornell students in disputes against parties not affiliated with the University. Richard Walroth, grad, GPSA Counsel Representative, said that the new Student Legal Services center began as an idea in the undergraduate Student Assembly several years ago, before graduate student trustee Annie O’Toole grad fleshed out a formal proposal last year. He said a majority of cases handled by the legal center would be landlord-tenant disputes.
“The motion was to create an ad hoc committee to explore the creation of Student Legal Services using the template that Annie O’Toole worked on,” said GPSA President Nathaniel Rogers grad.
Walroth said the center would largely help students with legal issues unrelated to the University.
“Primarily, it will probably address landlord-tenant issues,” he said. “If you have a lease that you feel has been violated by your landlord they could help with that, or if your landlord tried to hold onto your security deposit and you feel they are doing so illegally.”
Walroth said that many other universities have similar legal centers, dedicated exclusively to students. He cited his own alma mater, University of Florida, as an example of a school with full-time attorneys on staff to render legal aid to students when their schools could not provide such aid.
Walroth said that Cornell’s Student Legal Services center — as outlined in O’Toole’s proposal — would be funded by an optional $10 fee students could pay if they wish to use the center. He said the proposed center would be a legal clinic with day to day services provided by Cornell Law students and a local attorney kept on retainer.
“It is a $10 fee you will automatically pay but can opt out of,” Walroth said. “If you have to use the legal services but had opted out of the fee, there would be some kind of hugely expensive fee for you to still access the service to discourage people from opting out and then trying to use the service.”
Walroth said the $10 dollar fee would be a “student fee” placed into a pool with undergraduate student fees and would be similar to paying tuition. Because this Student Legal Services fee would be collected by the University, students would only be able to use those funds to find local lawyers who could help take action against parties not affiliated with the University as long as there was no conflict of interest.
Walroth said that some Cornell employees and faculty did lease property to students and that potential conflicts from these arrangements would be “an interesting situation.”
“The standard practice is that you can’t use the University’s services to represent yourself against the University,” Rogers said.
“If we all got together and paid $10 dollars outside the University to get a lawyer that would obviously be different,” Walroth said. “If we want to pay this fee to the University to provide this service, then there would have to be restrictions.”
Walroth said that, while creating a legal insurance company for students completely independently from the University was possible, there would be no way to enforce payment collection from members.
“You’d have to go to every student on campus and ask them for ten dollars. There’s no way we could ever enforce that,” Walroth said. “If I were to create a legal insurance company where everyone pays in and gets legal insurance whenever it’s needed, I could only imagine how that might go. Really this is only meant to address issues with Cornell students and the outside world, not Cornell itself.”