Now we can read the full Navigator Report that led NY Chief Justice Lippman to report on the success of the Project and to announce his plan to propose to the legislature “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.”
The Executive Summary of the Report tells it all.
THE NEW YORK STATE COURT NAVIGATOR PROGRAM was begun in March 2014 following Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s announcement of the program in his February 2014 State of the Judiciary address.
The Navigator Program was created by the Chief Judge’s Committee on Nonlawyers and the Justice Gap in response to the need for assistance for the more than 2 million New York- ers each year who are unable to find lawyers as they navigate a complex system to deal with their legal problems. While ideally every litigant would have a lawyer to represent him or her in cases involving fundamental human needs, the reality is that many can neither afford a lawyer nor access free legal services. The Navigator Program seeks to fill that unmet need and provide support and assistance to low-income litigants.
The program provides trained nonlawyers in Housing Court in Brooklyn and in a Civil Court consumer debt part in the Bronx. The role of the Navigators includes the provision of the fol lowing types of assistance, free of charge, to litigants:
•Preliminary discussions with litigants to listen and explain the process
• Review of the papers litigants have received and assembled to explain their relevance to the process
• Provision of information to litigants about appropriate or available court services (including interpreters)
• Description for litigants of the individuals they will see in court and their roles (e.g. judge, court clerk, law clerk), as well as likely discussion topics and the best manner of response to each
• Assistance to litigants in filling out court-approved DIY forms and help in identifying additional resources available on the Internet
• Court accompaniment, including giving notes or reminders to litigants where and when necessary
• Statements of fact to the judge, but only if asked a direct factual question by the judge
• Taking notes during any conference or hearing to discuss with litigants afterwards so that the litigants are clear about what has been said or decided and • what the litigants must do to comply with any directions they may have been given
• Some Navigators in the Housing Court, in addition, provide more in-depth service and remain with litigants to help provide needed social services, including benefits to cover rent arrears where available (see full description in Overview of program below).
This report describes the operations of the Navigator Program and includes three views — “snapshots” — of the program. All three indicate that the program provides valued practical assistance to litigants and to judges. In addition, in cases in which a Navigator was involved, respondents raised additional and more specific defenses and, overall, obtained decisions that produced a better financial result for respondents.
In the first view, 61 participants spoke directly to interviewers and answered a series of questions about the impact of the program. Every litigant interviewed agreed strongly that Navigators were helpful and courteous and understood their questions. An overwhelming ma- jority agreed that Navigators were able to answer questions and help them to understand what was happening in their cases; most felt that Navigators made them feel progress was being made. In narrative comments, participants appeared to consider the assistance they re- ceived invaluable, making observations such as the following: “wonderful program,” “good to have someone to help,” and “I wish this program were here sooner”.
The second view provides the judicial perspective. The three judges who have overseen the program in their parts participated in individual interviews; two of these judges presided over cases staffed by Navigators for almost four months each in the Bronx Civil Court, and one judge has continuously overseen the Housing Court part in Brooklyn. While there were individual differences relating to the part and to the particular types of Navigators (those Navigators that were able to provide social services assistance were more likely to help to resolve the case), all of the judges and the one court attorney who participated in the interviews were unanimous that the program has been very helpful to litigants and to the court. Litigants who were accompanied by Navigators reported uniformly that they were more comfortable, less stressed, and better able to provide the court with the information needed. One of the judges stated that the Navigator program should be considered a “necessary” component that should be expanded. All of the judges stated that Navigators had never spoken out in court unless asked a direct question by the judge.
The third view is of the initial processing and outcomes of a sample of 100 cases in Brook- lyn Housing Court. Researchers obtained data for all 35,000 cases handled in Brooklyn Housing Court between January and August 2014, and the database was sorted to match 50 cases in which Navigators were present and 50 cases in which they were not. There were a number of significant differences between the two groups of cases, including in the area of defenses raised. Respondents who received assistance from a Navigator raised a total of 205 defenses (averaging more than 4 per case), while in the unassisted 50 cases there were a total of 66 defenses raised (or an average of 1.3 per case). The types of defenses also differed significantly. The most common defense offered by the unassisted litigants was a general denial. In the cases of those receiving assistance, the most common defenses were that the litigant did not receive the correct court papers as required by law, that the litigant was not asked to pay the arrears before the court action, that the rent had already been paid, and that elements of the petition were not correct. A significantly greater number of those assisted responded that they did not receive a copy or proper notice of the petition, that the amount of rent being demanded was not the legal rent, or that the landlord had failed to complete needed repairs, provide services, or address poor conditions.
While this examination of the Navigator program is preliminary (the Navigator program will be the subject of a specific independent and comprehensive social science inquiry in 2015, as described below), our initial assessment is that the Navigator program is a valuable innovative addition to the state court system. In addition, a number of participants in both the Navigator program and the reviews made important suggestions contributing to the improvement of the operation of the program that will be implemented wherever possible. Overall, the initial findings are consistent with observations of committees, foundations, bar associations, and experts throughout the country, who have reported consistently that the Navigator model, although not a substitute for representation by a lawyer, provides a level of service that can help to promote basic fairness for people otherwise unable to receive legal assistance in mat- ters of significant consequence to their lives.
A few points bear emphasizing (disclosure: I am on the Committee, and involved with evaluation design, but these opinions are my own alone). Perhaps for people in many states, the best way to think about this is “self-help center plus.” These roles are best considered an extension of the services already being provided in the self-help center. They are not advocacy, but informational, and designed to ensure that judges have as much information as possible. These roles are not in any way in violation of statutory prohibitions dealing with the unauthorized practice of law, since that is simply not what the navigators so. Moreover, these services are provided without fees being paid by the litigants, and the idea provides a wonderful way for social service agencies to leverage their resources and effectiveness into the courthouse. Finally, I would emphasize to those who argue that the provision of these services had no impact, I would point to the dramatic increase in the number and specificity of defenses asserted by those assisted. by the program.
I believe that as its effectiveness is demonstrated, this kind of program will spread very quickly, and become a major component of the access solution.