Good news on nonlawyer innovations (which I like to call Beyond Lawyer Roles) from Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman’s recent State of the Judiciary Speech.
In our fight to close the jstice gap in New York State, non-lawyers have been an increasingly powerful force. Two years ago, I asked Roger Maldonado and Fern Schair to chair a Committee on Non-Lawyers and the Justice Gap and to explore ways that people without law degrees could make meaningful contributions to helping low-income people with legal problems. Since then, we have established programs in Housing Court in Brooklyn and in consumer debt cases in Civil Court in the Bronx. These programs use “navigators” — trained non-lawyers — who provide an array of services, including information, guidance within the court house, and moral support. They assist litigants in completing do-it-yourself forms, assembling documents, identifying possible sources of assistance funding, and in certain cases, accompany litigants and answer factual questions in the courtroom. The Navigators help litigants understand the process and reinforce the timetables and responsibilities as set out by the court. The Committee recently completed a report that demonstrates a marked difference in the behavior of litigants accompanied by Navigators — a greater ability to more clearly set out the relevant facts and circumstances and a significant increase in use of relevant defenses for those litigants. We have shared the progress of this program with the New York State Bar Association, which also sees the great promise of this exciting new concept.
I am pleased to announce today, that I intend to introduce legislation this year that calls for a further level of involvement by non-lawyers in assisting litigants. This proposal would codify a more substantial role for non-lawyers by establishing a category of service providers called “Court Advocates” in Housing Court and in consumer credit cases to assist low-income litigants.
While there is no substitute for a lawyer, the help of a well-trained non-lawyer standing by a litigant’s side is far preferable to no help at all. We have already seen what a difference it can make. (Bold added)
“[F]ar preferable to no help at all,” is the essence of it. I must re-disclose that I am a member of the Committee described above, but I doubt that it is any secret that I am very proud of what it – and more importantly the Chief – have done. Its not just a concrete innovation, but the way the Chief phrases the issue; “far preferable” is just right for the test and it can and should be applied more generally.
p.s. It is surely very encouraging that the State Bar President has been publicly generally supportive. As a press release from the NY State Bar puts it:
In his speech, the chief judge proposed creating a Court Advocates program to assist low-income litigants in housing court and in consumer-debt cases. The court advocates would be nonlawyers-supervised by attorneys-who help guide the litigants through the court system, helping them, for example, in completing do-it-yourself court forms and appearing with them in court.
“While there is no substitute for a lawyer, the help of a well-trained nonlawyer standing by the litigant’s side is far preferable to no help at all,” said Lippman
Lau-Kee said the concept of helping low-income litigants who cannot otherwise afford attorneys has merit. “It will be presented to the Association for further review,” he added.
p.p.s The New York Times Editorial Board chimes in (Bold Plans for New York Courts):
In his annual address on Tuesday, which received wide attention for its ideas about overhauling the way grand juries handle police-related killings, Judge Lippman addressed a range of issues. He said he was seeking a resolution from the State Legislature endorsing the principle that poor litigants in life-altering civil cases are entitled to effective legal representation, known as “civil Gideon.”
He will also submit legislation to authorize greater use of trained non-lawyers, called court “navigators,” to assist unrepresented litigants in housing, consumer debt and other legal matters. This builds on pilot projects in Brooklyn and the Bronx that have shown great promise.
This raises fascinating questions about the integration of Civil Gideon and non-lawyer service initiatives.