Civil Procedure

Use of nonlawyers to help litigants navigate NYC housing court has been a success, ABF study finds

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The use of nonlawyers to help pro se litigants navigate New York City Housing Court has been a success.

That’s according to a new study (PDF) from the American Bar Foundation.

According to a Thursday press release, the ABF study analyzed the New York City Court Navigators Program, which utilizes trained and supervised nonlawyer professionals to help pro se litigants in housing and civil courts. The researchers found that the program has made a demonstrable difference since its inception in 2014. The Navigators were set up to help deal with access-to-justice issues in New York City Housing and Civil Courts, where nearly 90 percent of litigants facing eviction go pro se while the vast majority of their landlords have attorneys.

“Courts were designed by lawyers for lawyers,” ABF faculty fellow and study co-author Rebecca Sandefur told the Wall Street Journal. “So they don’t know how to deal with all of these people who have no idea what they’re doing.”

The ABF study, which covered Brooklyn Housing Court, found that when it came to eviction cases, lack of adequate legal help was a bigger factor than the actual merits of the case. The Access to Justice Navigators Pilot Project, one of the three pilot projects that make up the Navigators program, trains nonlegal professionals to help pro se litigants understand and chart their own course through nonpayment or debt-collection proceedings. According to the study, participants who used the Access to Justice Navigators were 56 percent more likely to be able to say that they successfully told their side of the story in court than nonparticipants.

The Housing Court Answers Navigators Pilot Project, meanwhile, trains nonlegal professionals to help pro se litigants fill out their legal forms and prepare answers to the landlord’s papers. The study found that those who utilized the Navigators to help fill out forms for housing court were 87 percent more likely to have the court recognize and address their defenses compared to unassisted litigants.

Finally, the University Settlement Navigators Pilot Project trains nonlegal professionals to help pro se litigants avoid eviction. According to the study, of the 150 program participants who were facing eviction, none of them were actually evicted from their homes.

“There were a handful of people, fewer than five, who left the apartment,” said Sandefur, who co-authored the report with Thomas Clarke, vice president of research and technology at the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), to NPR. “But they left voluntarily and they didn’t experience a period of homelessness—because that’s one thing you’re trying to prevent.”

The ABF recommended that the state expand the Navigators program while providing more “do-it-yourself” options for litigants, including self-service kiosks in court. The ABF also stated that judges, court attorneys and staff should be educated about the Navigators program so that they can be integrated into the case flow.

“People without formal legal training can provide meaningful assistance and services to litigants who are not represented by a lawyer,” the report said.

See also:

ABA Journal: “Americans don’t see their issues as legal matters, study says”

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