Caitlyn Brady, left, a navigator in Brooklyn Housing Court, helps Angela Caceres. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
Angela Caceres, a 42-year-old home health aide from Coney Island, stood in Brooklyn Housing Court with a petition for eviction based on alleged nonpayment. Caceres, who claimed she was up to date on rent, said she feared losing the home she shared with her kids.
Then Caitlyn Brady, a 22-year-old junior at Fordham University volunteering as a “navigator,” escorted Caceres to a cubicle within the court’s clerk’s office, talked her through a computerized answer form, and accompanied her to the clerk’s window to submit the answer.
“I’m more calm,” Caceres said afterward.
Judge Fern Fisher (See Profile), deputy chief administrative judge for New York City courts, said the navigator program is an effort to give unrepresented litigants emotional support in a stressful process and link them to resources.
The pilot program permits trained nonlawyer volunteers to help litigants fill out paperwork, organize documents and even accompany litigants to court appearances where, upon court direction, they can answer factual questions such as which benefits a person has applied for and whether a building is rent regulated. They may also direct litigants to legal service programs or help centers where court-employed attorneys give legal and procedural information to unrepresented parties.
Navigators are prohibited from giving legal advice.
But some housing attorneys are not convinced of the program’s benefits, saying they are skeptical of an arrangement that temporarily links nonlawyers with litigants.
“I absolutely agree a lot of pro se litigants need more information and need more guidance. I don’t think this is the answer to it. … I have problems with any assistance that’s not full-throttled assistance,” said Michael Rosenthal of Rappaport, Hertz, Cherson & Rosenthal, president of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association.
The navigator program was built by the Committee on Non-Lawyers and the Justice Gap, a group created by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (NYLJ, May 29, 2013).
After a February order from Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile) establishing the pilot, it kicked off last month in Brooklyn Housing Court, where navigators assist with prioritized eviction for nonpayment actions, and in Bronx Civil Court, where navigators assist with consumer credit matters.
Both are high-volume courts where more than 90 percent of defendants go unrepresented, said Fern Schair, a cochair of the Committee on Non-Lawyers.
Court officials say they would like to see the program expand to Queens to help litigants complete uncontested divorce paperwork.
Separately, through the navigator program, case managers from the Jewish Association Serving the Aging in Queens are being trained to assist clients with paperwork associated with housing or consumer cases.
“The average person walks in with no idea; they just know they’ve been sued and are scared to death,” said Schair, chair of advisory board of Fordham University School of Law’s Feerick Center for Social Justice.
Navigators are largely undergraduate students from nearby colleges; other navigators include employees of Housing Court Answers, an organization assisting unrepresented litigants; and University Settlement, a social services organization.
There are approximately 60 trained navigators, said Fisher, noting that after six months, court officials will gauge the program’s success using surveys from litigants who participated.
“The most important thing is to have a buddy with you. That’s the initial benefit [of the program]. The rest flows from that,” she said.
Inspiration for the program came from the “McKenzie friend” model in the United Kingdom, where courts allow pro se litigants in certain cases to be accompanied by lay people who offer moral support and take notes inside the courtroom.
But the navigator ground rules are based on an earlier court-run Resolution Assistance Program, which ran for about six years in all city housing courts but Staten Island before being folded into the current program.
Nonetheless, practitioners are wary. In late February, New York State Bar Association leaders met with the Committee on Non-Lawyers to discuss how the program would be evaluated and how rules against a navigator giving legal advice would be enforced (NYLJ, March 5).
Weeks later, state bar president David Schraver of Nixon Peabody said in an interview that the program “appears to be consistent with the terms” of Prudenti’s order.
“If navigators can be helpful to people who don’t have, and can’t afford, a lawyer and are not engaged in practicing law” as the administrative order instructs “then we’re open to see how it works in practice,” Schraver said.
Rosenthal, who primarily represents landlords, said his concerns were raised by the Resolution Assistance Program and the Volunteer Lawyer for the Day Program. He said pro se litigants are “given false expectations.”
If an assisted litigant raises a challenge on proper service, for example, Rosenthal said the litigant can be put in a position to litigate a traverse hearing, which is “very difficult” for someone with no legal experience.
“It’s creating expectations that something is going to be that isn’t going to be,” he said, adding that a place like Brooklyn Housing Court already has a pro se office and social service liaisons.
Janet Ray Kalson of Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, a tenant-side law firm, said that “on the one hand, people who are unrepresented have substantial legal needs and on the other hand, I am leery about those needs being fulfilled by nonlawyers.”
Kalson, a former chair of the New York City Bar’s Civil Court Committee, said a number of her colleagues feel the same way.
But Fisher emphasized that the program is not meant to fulfill a litigant’s legal needs.
“In a perfect world, everybody would have lawyers. We’re not close to that,” she said, adding that the program is there “to give litigants assistance and support.”
She added, “Any change in court culture sets antenna up, no matter what we do. After a while, people generally settle down.” If attorneys have concerns “after experiencing the program, we can certain address them.”
In Brooklyn, all cases involving navigators go before Housing Court Judge Hannah Cohen (See Profile).
“I think tenants feel more comfortable” and less likely to feel they could be going along with a legal process they do not understand, she said. “That permeates the whole court and changes the dynamics.”
One morning last month, Cohen’s courtroom was packed, with people constantly filing in and out. But it was just as busy in the cramped hallway, where tenants and attorneys for landlords negotiated while waiting for their court appearance.
According to the program manual, navigators are allowed to “accompany persons during hallway negotiations with opposing attorneys.” The manual also lists “red flags” requiring assistance from a judge or court attorney, such as a litigant appearing confused by counsel’s proposal or an attorney “pressuring” a litigant.
One navigator, Jennifer Vallone, has been assisting individuals at Brooklyn Housing Court for seven years through her role as director of Project Home with University Settlement, which offers housing counseling, eviction prevention and other social services.
She said she has seen hallway negotiations leading tenants to make “uninformed decisions.”
Vallone said apart from explaining court documents, a good part of her duties as a navigator are assisting with the social service matters connected to lack of payment.
That could mean helping tenants apply for entitled benefits, such as arrears assistance or disability payments. Or it could be trying to resolve instances where adult children were not contributing to rent payments.
“That’s a family mediation issue, not a legal issue,” she said.
Vallone said she recently sat in on a court appearance for a couple, who became nervous and confused when the discussion moved to the question of a possible laches defense.
At that point, Vallone offered to see if a legal services provider would take up their case and the proceeding was adjourned; if Vallone was not there, even the possibility of connecting the couple with legal representation would not have occurred, she said.
“All we do is give information. We just make sure a person has all of the information. We would be irresponsible and remiss if we gave bad advice to our client,” Vallone said.