The New York Law Journal has just published an excellent article on the Navigator program (full article accessible for free) in part of the Brooklyn Housing Court and part of the Bronx court dealing with consumer credit matters. As described in the article:
The pilot program permits trained nonlawyer volunteers to help litigants fill out paperwork, organize documents and even accompany litigants to court appearances where, upon court direction, they can answer factual questions such as which benefits a person has applied for and whether a building is rent regulated. They may also direct litigants to legal service programs or help centers where court-employed attorneys give legal and procedural information to unrepresented parties.
Navigators are prohibited from giving legal advice.
After describing the help given to one individual, the article reports on the anxieties of certain of the bar, and the state bar president’s quote that: “If navigators can be helpful to people who don’t have, and can’t afford, a lawyer and are not engaged in practicing law” as the administrative order instructs “then we’re open to see how it works in practice,”
I encourage everyone to read the full article, that explores the questions the bar has in more detail, is specific about what navigators are permitted to do, explores the reaction of tenant advocates, and discusses Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher’s long term perspective and willingness to learn from the pilot.
The overall sense I took is that the program seems to be working, but that certain of the profession are anxious. In short, the article is well summarized by the headline: Navigator’ Program Launches; Skeptics ‘Wait and See’.
Disclosure: I am on the Committee on Non-Lawyers and the Justice Gap, established by Chief Judge Lippman, that recommended the pilot. On a personal level, I am very encouraged by the apparent success of the launch, and confident that as so often with access to justice innovations, the skeptics will find the changes much less disruptive than they fear. I hope that more detailed evaluation of such programs will let us craft them for optimum effect.
Special thanks to the New York Law Journal for making this important article generally available to all.
In San Francisco, another city with rent control where loosing a lease is a huge loss, the Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC) has been working with the housing court on providing similar assistance to the 99% of tenants that are in eviction court without lawyers. The EDC helps prepare all the court documents/answers/motions for summary judgement and brings the file to the court house. At the court house, the person meets with a volunteer lawyer provided by the Bar Association Volunteer lawyer’s project. If the case does not settle and there are defenses that need to go to trial, a pro bono lawyer takes the case to hearing. Most of the cases settle on the pre-conference day–and stipulations and agreements are entered in the record the same day. The EDC is staffed by attorneys and non-attorneys and handles all the answers in what is a 5 day summary civil case. All the agencies that do eviction work support the EDC and have the cases referred to the from the EDC–in effect the EDC triages the cases and takes the first step by preparing the responses so that the tenant does not default. It would be good to compare both programs and see how their design is similar and/or different and why. I think that adding the pro bono lawyer component provided by the Bar rounded up the project by allowing the few cases where there are issues to bring in front of a judge to go forward.