MFY Legal Services’ Mental Health-Legal Partnership

Beginning my tour of Medical Legal Partnerships in the States at the National Conference of MLPs in San Antonio was a wonderful way to get an overall sense of the movement and the diversity of services across the nation. It was there that I met Jeanette Zelhof, Executive Director of MFY Legal Services Inc in New York City, who enthusiastically invited me to visit their service.

“MFY provides free legal assistance to residents of New York City on a wide range of civil legal issues, prioritizing services to vulnerable and under-served populations, while simultaneously working to end the root causes of inequities through impact litigation, law reform and policy advocacy.”1

Although MFY offers a wide range of services to diverse populations across the borough’s of New York, it was their Mental Health-Legal Partnership 2 that caught my attention.

Further to the linked article in the Clearing House REVIEW Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, which provides an excellent overview of the service, I think that there are 3 things that are worth underscoring about MFYs program.

First, almost 30 years ago (well ahead of its time according to Zelhof) the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (a Municipality or Local Government) was evaluating ways to support the deinstitutionalisation of people experiencing mental illness, chose to include a legal component in the support system as a way of   reducing stressors to mental health. MFY was contracted to provide the service.

Secondly, MFY works in partnership with mental health partners and other services at every step of the legal process “…simultaneously serving both the legal and treatment needs of people with mental illness in outpatient mental health programs or temporarily in hospitals.” 3 The service is comprehensive.

Thirdly, MFY’s partnership is one of the very few MLPs dedicated to serving the needs of this cohort, period. During my interview with Zelhof and supervising attorney Mallory Curran, I posited that one of the reasons why this may be so is that advocacy on behalf of this cohort has a layer of complexity where individuals rights and liberties can clash with the treatment goals of a health team. Zelhof was not persuaded. For her it comes down to plain old discrimination – this is an area of medical-legal practice like any other where an attorney can play a critical role to arrest the unravelling legal issues of people experiencing acute ill-health. The corollary of this is that integrated legal services addressing the civil legal and treatment needs of patients is an area that should receive much greater attention and, hopefully, will inspire other and new MLPs to focus on or incorporate this area of legal practice into their model.

Peter Noble

Advocacy-Health Alliances

1. MFY Legal Services Inc., About MFY, at, accessed 15 April 2012.

2. Jeanette Zelhof and Sarah J Fulton (March – April 2011) MFY Legal Services’ Mental Health-Legal Partnership, Clearing House REVIEW Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, Shriver Center.

3. Op cit, 536.


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