This ground-breaking news, once again from the New York Courts. As the press release puts it:
[The] Network of Walk-in Storefronts Will Be First of Its Kind in New York and the Nation to Bring Basic Legal Information, Assistance and Support to Residents in Low -Income Communities.
In more detail:
[The] singular new program [ ] will bring a corps of trained community volunteers to storefront locations in our most vulnerable neighborhoods, offering free legal information, assistance and referrals to residents grappling with legal problems relating to the very basics of life.
The storefronts will be called “Legal Hand,” the program, developed in collaboration with Helaine Barnett, the chair of New York’s Permanent Commission on Access to Justice, will be operated by the Center for Court Innovation and local community-based legal aid providers. One center is already open with two more to come soon. The idea will build heavily on the Courtroom Navigator program, will take advantage of the range of informational assistance that non-lawyers can appropriately provide, and:
Each Legal Hand will be managed by a volunteer coordinator and staffed with trained volunteers to provide information and guidance to low-income individuals on how to navigate the court and social services system and how to protect and represent themselves in a legal matter. A legal services attorney will also be on-site to help train and aid volunteers.
Legal Hand volunteers will receive substantive training focusing on areas where emergencies commonly arise, such as housing, physical safety, immigration, family matters and benefits. Training will also cover cultural competency, interviewing skills, the limits on the advice non-lawyer volunteers are legally permitted to provide and the availability of referrals to other services, including full legal representation. Periodic training will continue throughout each volunteer’s tenure. Volunteers come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds including retirees, college students, long-time residents and individuals new to the community. Volunteers who have already signed up and received training in the Crown Heights location reflect the diversity of the community they serve and include many with second language capabilities.
As Judge Lippman puts it in the press release:
When people are in trouble, they do not immediately look to the courthouse for assistance. Our goal with the Legal Hand Centers is to break down barriers between the community and the justice system and to demystify some of the simple steps people can take to protect their rights under the law. This will lead to more just outcomes, more crises averted, less litigation, and money savings for our state and local governments. Most important, the centers will contribute greatly in transforming the ideal of equal justice into a reality in New York.”
While the program starts with a one million dollar anonymous grant, this is likely to be demonstrated to be a highly cost effective way of increasing access to justice. It leverages the skill and knowledge of community based legal aid with the energy and commitment of trained volunteers, and takes full advantage of our newly developed understandings of how unauthorized practice of law rules need not be so constraining of innovation as was once assumed.
For a longstanding observer of legal aid, there is both joy and irony in seeing access to justice services return to the neighborhoods. It was only in the funding crises of the 1980s that community-based legal aid programs throughout the country largely retreated from the community and centralized most of their services in downtown locations. Courts have also been heavily centralized.
Perhaps with access to justice services moving back into neighborhoods, we will start to see a new (or rather renewed) kind of energy that draws on the reality of all the crises that people are suffering, rather than only those that make it through complex intake filters of courts and community-based legal aid.
This is particularly apposite as we are reminded of the community/system chasm, of which we have been so urgently reminded by events in Ferguson and Baltimore and beyond.
I hope that this project will be conducted with the kind of research and evaluation that will assess its impact and cost effectiveness, and thus hopefully facilitate its speedy and broad rollout as part of the 100% access to justice solution. In particular, I would hope that we can be looking at these centers as potential triage locations — indeed, the inclusion at every center of a legal aid attorney should help make this much easier to do. The centers will offer an environment to test different approaches to triage.