Volunteer Lawyers for a Day in Housing Court: an Alliance between the Civil Court and City Bar
April 10, 2008
Oroma Mpi, 212-382-6713
Volunteer Lawyers for a Day in Housing Court:
an Alliance between the Civil Court and City Bar
New York, NY—Today the New York City Civil Court and the New York City Bar Association announced a new partnership to increase accessibility to lawyers in Housing Court. The announcement follows the release of a report titled Volunteer Lawyer for a Day Project Report: A Test of Unbundled Legal Services in the New York City Housing Court, authored by the Civil Court, the Office of the Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives, and the City Bar. The report documents the findings and recommendations of a pilot program in which the Civil Court recruited, trained and supervised volunteer lawyers to represent litigants at their initial court appearances in Manhattan.
“Unbundled legal services” is a term used to describe the manner in which lawyers can provide limited representation to a client, if the client agrees to such representation. The lawyer performs only those tasks agreed upon, and the client performs the rest. While such “discrete task representation” is generally accepted in non-litigated matters, it is not commonplace in the courtroom. The purpose of the Housing Court pilot program was to test unbundled legal services in litigated cases. The project was modeled after a successful “lawyer for a day” program run by the Volunteer Legal Services Program, a nonprofit organization founded by the San Francisco Bar Association.
The City Bar’s Committee on Legal Services to Persons of Moderate Means, along with the Civil Court and Hon. Juanita Bing Newton’s Justice Initiatives Office, developed and implemented the project for tenants facing settlement conferences in nonpayment cases. The settlement conference is the court appearance where an attempt to negotiate a stipulation agreement is made.
Between November 2006 and February 2007, a total of 50 tenants were represented through the Lawyer for a Day Program. One hundred percent of the participating tenants raised defenses other than general denials, thus improving the tenants’ leverage in the litigation. According to Administrative Judge Fern A. Fisher of the Civil Court, this is unusual considering a substantial number of oral answers typically contain no defenses other than a general denial.
Many litigants had not been aware that the landlord had a duty to provide a habitable apartment, and that this defense could be raised in a nonpayment proceeding. Volunteer lawyers were also able to detect inaccuracies in some landlords’ petitions, such as an inflated amount in rent owed and a jurisdictional defect. One tenant noted, “[t]he volunteer attorney told me that I could get repairs to the apartment – I would never have thought I could talk about repairs in the nonpayment case.”
The report found that the Lawyer for a Day Program in Housing Court benefits litigants, attorneys, and the court system by improving access to justice, perceptions of fairness, and courthouse efficiency, while also providing attractive pro bono opportunities.
The City Bar Justice Center (CBJC),the pro bono affiliate of the New York City Bar, will hire an experienced landlord-tenant attorney to work part-time in Housing Court on the Lawyer for a Day Program, overseeing the work of the volunteers. The addition of this position, which will be funded by the court system, will allow the program to expand into Brooklyn, and provide support to the court-employed Program Coordinator, the chief administrator of the project. The new CBJC staff member will review the negotiated stipulations, and ideally, serve as a point-of-contact for both litigants and volunteer lawyers.
“We recognize that full legal representation is always preferred in litigation,” said Barry Kamins, President of the New York City Bar Association. “However, with 90 percent of tenants in Housing Court not represented by attorneys, the Lawyer for a Day Program is a practical and effective means of meeting some of the legal need here in the city. The City Bar is pleased to have formed this partnership with the Civil Court, enabling the program to reach Brooklyn and the other outer-boroughs in the near future.”
For more information, visit: http://www.nycourts.gov/courts/nyc/housing/vlfd_housing.shtml.
About the Association
The New York City Bar Association (www.nycbar.org) was founded in 1870, and since then has been dedicated to maintaining the high ethical standards of the profession, promoting reform of the law, and providing service to the profession and the public. The Association continues to work for political, legal and social reform, while implementing innovative means to help the disadvantaged. Protecting the public’s welfare remains one of the Association’s highest priorities.