IN OUR FIGHT TO CLOSE THE JUSTICE GAP IN NEW YORK STATE, non-lawyers have been an increasingly powerful force. Two years ago, I asked Roger Maldonado and Fern Schair to chair a Committee on Non-Lawyers and the Justice Gap and to explore ways that people without law degrees could make meaningful contributions to helping low-income people with legal problems. Since then, we have established programs in Housing Court in Brooklyn and in consumer debt cases in Civil Court in the Bronx.
These programs use “navigators” — trained non-lawyers — who provide an array of services, including information, guidance within the court house, and moral support.
They assist litigants in completing do-it-yourself forms, assembling documents, identifying possible sources of assistance funding, and in certain cases, accompany litigants and answer factual questions in the courtroom. The Navigators help litigants understand the process and reinforce the timetables and responsibilities as set out by the court.
The Committee recently completed a report that demonstrates a marked difference in the behavior of litigants accompanied by Navigators — a greater ability to more clearly set out the relevant facts and circumstances and a significant increase in use of relevant defenses for those litigants. We have shared the progress of this program with the New York State Bar Association, which also sees the great promise of this exciting new concept.
I am pleased to announce today, that I intend to introduce 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.
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. We have already seen what a difference it can make.
INDIGENT CRIMINAL DEFENSE
PROVIDING QUALITY LEGAL REPRESENTATION FOR INDIGENT PERSONS accused of a crime remains both a legal obligation and a moral priority for our justice system. Recent developments strongly suggest that our state is now on a fast track to fulfilling the promise and mandate of Gideon v. Wainwright. The historic settlement last fall of the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit means that, for the first time, the State has acknowledged that it bears responsibility to set standards and provide funds necessary to ensure the high and uniform quality of representation for low-income people in criminal cases.
Moreover, the settlement vests responsibility for implementation of its stringent provisions with the Office of Indigent Legal Services. Thus, the settlement honors two foundational and fundamental principles: that the quality of representation in cases legally mandated by Gideon is truly the responsibility of the State; and that the task of securing needed improvement in the quality of representation must be vested in an independent and professionally staffed office.
Despite this welcome achievement, our efforts are far from over. The settlement terms—which, most importantly, require implementation of caseload limits and provision of counsel at first court appearance—apply only to five of the state’s 62 counties.
And although the average institutional defender caseloads in those counties are currently too high — nearly 500 per attorney, well in excess of the nationally recognized limits —none of the five counties are among the 23 counties most in need, where average attorney caseloads exceed 700.
We simply do not have the luxury of waiting indefinitely to make progress in the rest of the state. We must take full advantage of the momentum of the settlement and the effective blueprint it provides. That is why the Office of Indigent Legal Services is seeking $28 million from the Legislature for the upcoming fiscal year for what would be the first phase of a five-year upstate caseload reduction and provision of counsel at first appearance program. We can no longer tolerate the unacceptable circumstance in this state in which the quality of justice one receives is dependent on the happenstance of where one is charged and prosecuted.
NATIONAL SUMMIT ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING AND THE STATE COURTS
AQUALITY INDIGENT DEFENSE SYSTEM IS FUNDAMENTAL to access to justice, and fighting the evil of human trafficking is also a vital component of ensuring justice for all. The Judiciary has the ability to be a catalyst for change in addressing this problem, and New York leads the way in this regard, at the forefront in developing responses to sex trafficking.
In 2013, I announced New York’s launch of the nation’s first statewide system of dedicated courts designed to intervene in the lives of trafficked human beings. I am pleased to announce today that on October 7-9, 2015, New York will host a National Summit on Human Trafficking and the State Courts. The Summit will be financed by a nearly half million dollar grant from the federally funded State Justice Institute, which has done such great work in this area through the State Courts Collaborative—of which New York’s Center for Court Innovation is an integral player.
Building upon New York’s experience and expertise in Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, the Summit will provide a national platform for discussion among state court leaders and will further the goal of building national, state, and local partnerships to address the full scope of human trafficking. This groundbreaking Summit will be conducted in partnership with the National Center for State Courts, the National Conference of Chief Justices, and the National Conference of State Court Administrators.
Individuals charged with prostitution-related offenses are overwhelmingly victims of trafficking, recruited or forced into the commercial sex industry. Jurisdictions and courts around the country are just beginning to recognize this phenomenon. The New York Summit will be a significant catalyst to raise consciousness about the nature, scale and scope of human trafficking, and the role of the state courts in combating this modern day form of slavery, where victims, at the youngest of ages, are exploited by a vast and evil industry.
(To Be Continued Next Week)