This could be a very important milestone in the development of access to justice.
Building on practice in other common law countries, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to today announced in his 2014 New York State of the Judiciary speech, the launch of a pilot project of Court Navigators to help unrepresented litigants in Housing Court cases in Brooklyn and consumer debt cases in the Bronx and Brooklyn. These trained volunteer non-lawyers will not address the court sua sponte, “but if the judge directs factual questions to them, they will be able to respond.” They will also be able to provide other assistance described below. Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher has been particularity involved with this project.
The Chief also announced a similar project to provide legal informational assistance to seniors, including the homebound. This project will be a collaboration between Albany Law School and the SUNY-Albany School of Social Welfare and make use of existing professionals who visit the homebound. More details on both projects from the speech at pp 7-9, below.
Our efforts to find ways for non-lawyers to be of assistance begin in the courthouse. As of this month, specially trained and supervised non-lawyers will begin providing ancillary, pro bono assistance to unrepresented litigants in Housing Court cases in Brooklyn and consumer debt cases in the Bronx and Brooklyn. These are courts and case types in which virtually all defendants are unrepresented and are facing serious personal consequences as a result of litigation. It is shocking that in this day and age, over 95 percent of defendants in these critical cases are currently unrepresented. The new court-sponsored projects will offer an array of assistance to eligible pro se litigants ranging from general information provided at help desks and written material to one-on- one assistance, depending on the needs and interests of the litigants. This kind of one-on-one assistance will include providing informational resources to litigants and helping them access and complete court do-it-yourself forms and assemble documents, as well as assisting in settlement negotiations outside the courtroom.
Most significantly, for the first time, the trained non-lawyers, called Navigators, will be permitted to accompany unrepresented litigants into the courtroom in specific locations in Brooklyn Housing Court and Bronx Civil Court. They will not be permitted to address the court on their own, but if the judge directs factual questions to them, they will be able to respond. They will also provide moral support and information to litigants, help them keep paperwork in order, assist them in accessing interpreters and other services, and, before they even enter the courtroom, explain what to expect and what the roles are of each person in the courtroom.
Clear guidelines govern what a non-lawyer can and cannot do to ensure that they do not cross the line into the practice of law. They will receive training and develop ex- pertise in defined subject areas. When these non-lawyers confront situations where the help of a lawyer is crucial, they will have access to legal service providers for help and referrals.
In addition to these courthouse-based projects, we are also beginning projects to reach people outside of the courtroom through a collaboration between Albany Law School and the SUNY-Albany School of Social Welfare to serve the elderly population in the Albany area, providing them with information about their legal rights. New York’s 3.7 million seniors make up 19 percent of New York State’s population. In fact, we have the third largest population of people age 60 and over in the country, and the number is growing. Many of these seniors are eligible for benefits. But they may not be aware that they can access them or how to go about it. The courts are also seeking to utilize non-lawyers to provide legal information and access to homebound individuals. For people who are unable to leave home due to age, disability, or illness, attending court appearances or even answering a lawsuit can be an insurmountable challenge, resulting in high rates of default. Far too many homebound people have no capacity to consult a lawyer. But they do receive home visits from social service providers, who — through training and technology — can be a link and a valuable source of information and re- sources. And these service providers are eager to have better tools to help the people in their care.
All these efforts will help us address the crisis in civil legal services for the poor in ways that will supplement the services provided by the legal profession, which has nothing to fear from these new projects. These efforts are aimed at groups who cannot afford to pay a lawyer under any circumstances and are unable to access free legal services. And they seek to provide information and help that fall outside the practice of law. We are committed to exploring all possible avenues to expand access to justice in our state, and I look forward to further building on these ideas in the future with the help of our terrific Committee on Non-Lawyers and the Justice Gap. I applaud its hard and thoughtful work, and I am energized by the projects the Committee has recommended and that we now put into effect — projects that will begin to change the very contours of how we deliver civil legal services in our state. (Bold added.)
If these projects are successful, and if the evaluation demonstrates their impact on access, I believe that these models could spread very rapidly and could cause a rapid increase in access. I am a member of the Task Force referenced above, and take my hat off to the way a wide variety of stakeholders were able to coalesce around a common vision and practical implementations.