University Settlement's Court Navigators program was featured in the New York Law Journal yesterday for its success as a first-year pilot program. Read the full story below, or check it out online:
Report Cites Benefits of 'Navigator' Program, Suggests Expansion
Andrew Denney, New York Law Journal
February 24, 2015
Less than a year after the launch of a pilot program allowing non-lawyers to help unrepresented, low-income litigants, the program's supporters are calling for an expansion and changes to the law that would allow the non-lawyers to take on more responsibilities.
According to a "snapshot" report on the Navigator program, litigants who have received assistance and members of the Judiciary who work in courts where the program is active said that they generally found the program helpful and that it better prepared litigants for their cases.
The report was released in December by the Committee on Non-Lawyers and the Justice Gap, a task force created by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.
Lippman cited the committee's report during his 2015 State of the Judiciary address (NYLJ, Feb. 18) saying it shows there has been a "marked difference" in litigants' behavior when navigators accompany them to court.
In his address, Lippman also announced plans to propose a bill in the New York State Assembly to carve out a more substantial role for non-lawyers in a separate Court Advocates program.
"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," Lippman said during the address. "We have already seen what a difference it can make."
Fern Schair, who co-chairs the committee, said the Court Advocates program would require a change in state law to expand the exemptions listed in Article 15 of the Judiciary Code. The revision would permit advocates to take on tasks such as negotiating with opposing counsel and helping litigants develop strategies for their defense.
Under the proposal, Schair said, the court advocates would be placed under the supervision of an attorney, and the chief administrative judge would be tasked with developing a certification process.
Schair also serves as chair of the advisory board of Fordham University School of Law's Feerick Center for Social Justice.
Roger Maldonado, a partner at Balber Pickard Maldonado & Van Der Tuin who is the committee's other co-chair, said the proposed legislation has been submitted for review to the New York State Bar Association, which raised questions about the navigator program last year.
According to a news release from the bar association following Lippman's State of the Judiciary, state bar President Glenn Lau-Kee said the concept of assisting low-income litigants who would not otherwise not be represented has merit.
"It will be presented to the association for further review," Lau-Kee said.
Navigators guide litigants in filling out forms and finding additional resources online, among other tasks. Under the navigator program, non-lawyers provide assistance to unrepresented litigants in Brooklyn Housing Court and in consumer debt cases in Bronx Civil Court.
In those two courts combined, 99 percent of litigants are unrepresented, the committee's report found.
The report analyzed 100 cases handled in the Brooklyn Housing Court between January and August 2014. Fifty of those cases involved litigants who received assistance from a navigator and 50 who did not. The litigants who received assistance raised more defenses and more specific defenses than litigants who lacked the support.
There were 205 total defenses raised by the 50 litigants who received assistance, an average of 4.1 defenses per case, compared to 66 defenses among the 50 litigants who did not receive assistance, or 1.3 defenses per case.
Of the sampled cases in which litigants did not have assistance, 35 percent used a general denial of a petitioner's claim without making a specific defense.
Of those who received assistance, more than a third claimed they did not receive all the required legal documents, and about one-third claimed landlords did not notify them of rent arrears before taking them to court. According to the report, litigants who did not receive assistance did not offer those defenses.
There were 35,000 cases in Brooklyn Housing Court between January and August 2014.
The report said that while a comprehensive social science inquiry will be conducted this year, the feedback from litigants and the judiciary and the data analysis conducted thus far "indicate tangible benefits."
Schair said that committee members hope the navigator plan can be expanded into other court parts in other boroughs in the city.
"I think people are understanding better that it can be helpful without treading on the toes of legal advice," Schair said.