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Legal Service Providers Laud Expansion of Housing Court Representation

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Fri, 02/17/2017 - 19:29

Here's a freelance piece I did today for the New York Law Journal about New York City's ground-breaking plan to use city funds to ensure that tenants earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level will have lawyers when facing eviction:

New York City's plan to offer free counsel to low-income Housing Court tenants facing eviction doesn't mean tenants who fail to meet income requirements won't receive any help.

City leaders this month agreed to allocate an extra $93 million to expand representation for tenant with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, or $50,000 for a family of four. According to City Councilman Mark Levine, two-thirds of tenants in Housing Court fall into that category.

However, city residents who make more than the income threshold will still be entitled to legal guidance if they need it—although how exactly they would receive that guidance remains unclear..

Beth Goldman, president and attorney-in-charge of New York Legal Assistance Group, said that the opportunity to help higher-income tenants with advice—even though they won't get a lawyer to represent them in court—is extremely meaningful. That will mean no one is "going to be completely left on their own" in Housing Court, she said.

Goldman said she hopes the increase in legal services will cause judges to start asking tenants if they have consulted with legal counsel before they proceed with eviction cases.

The proposal expands on the city's previous investment in providing representation for lower-income tenants facing evictions. The city's funding already had increased more than tenfold, from $6 million to $62 million, in the past two years. With the new allocation, the total city spending for Housing Court representation will be $155 million.

According to city officials, the expansion of tenant legal aid since 2014 has led to 27 percent of tenants being represented in court—compared to just 1 percent before—and evictions dropping by 24 percent.

Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC, said that the city's commitment to funding tenant legal aid already has allowed his organization to hire 120 additional lawyers and paralegals. The "creation of an effective right to counsel is just a stunning development in the justice system," he said.

Rasmussen said Housing Court will have to change how it operates as a result of the $93 million agreement. With more lawyers involved in defending tenants, there will be an increase in motion practice and trials, he said.

The increased spending will be rolled out over five years, in part to give the city's legal aid organizations time to ramp up recruitment and training for a large number of new attorneys, Levine said.

"It was not long ago that barely 1 percent of tenants facing eviction in the city were represented by counsel," Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a statement on the additional spending for representation. "Building on funding that the state court system has provided for civil legal services, this landmark agreement will ensure that tenants at risk of losing the roof over their heads receive invaluable legal assistance when they appear in court."

New Virtual Law Advice Clinic Aims to Help Low-Income Residents

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Fri, 10/21/2016 - 17:48

Here is my piece just published by the Connecticut Law Tribune about a new pro bono program aiming to help close the access to justice gap:

The power of the internet is being harnessed to make it easier for low-income Connecticut residents to access legal advice, and to make it easier for pro bono attorneys to volunteer to help people who can't afford to pay for attorneys.

Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut is one of the legal aid law firms in eight states which are partnering with the American Bar Association on a virtual law advice clinic that allows low-income clients to ask questions about civil law and for attorneys to answer their questions online whenever convenient for them.

Instead of dropping into a legal aid clinic to talk to a lawyer in person, clients can type their questions and submit them on a computer.

Judge Elliot N. Solomon, deputy chief court administrator and co-chairman of the Connecticut judiciary's Access to Justice Commission, said this new program is unique because it makes it more convenient for people with low to moderate incomes to access legal advice and more convenient for lawyers to be able to provide pro bono service to people who need it.

"It's a win-win both from the perspective of the client and the lawyer," Solomon said.

For clients, the program enables them to access legal advice if they can't afford to take time off from work or if they have some kind of disability that makes travel more difficult, Solomon said.

Clients can get quick responses to their questions with this program, Solomon said. For people who are overwhelmed because they are facing an eviction or debt collection, "sometimes the easiest course of action is to ignore it, which is the least effective" way, he said.

For lawyers, this program makes it easier to do pro bono work whenever they have free time, whether it's at "airport terminals, their offices or late at night," Ashleigh Backman, SLS' pro bono attorney manager, said.

"We saw this as a great way for busy associates, busy solo practitioners, to be able to do pro bono work and accept legal questions they feel most competent answering," Backman said.

Starting six years ago, Tennessee was the first state to run the virtual pro bono clinic. Connecticut and six other states launched their own a few weeks ago. The program will be in 75 percent of the country by November.

Connecticut's version of the program,, is still in beta testing, Backman said. The client feedback so far is "that it was really easy to get an answer for free," she said.

People can ask questions about such civil legal issues aslandlord-tenant problems, consumer debt, employment, workers' compensation, family law, wills, and health law, Backman said.

The program also could be used to send out mass legal information if there is a disaster in Connecticut, Backman said.

There are between 30 and 35 attorneys actively volunteering in the program, Backman said, and SLS would like to recruit more attorneys to participate.

Backman explained that the program is not a live chat but a "virtual space to ask questions."

Clients have to meet requirements for income eligibility, Backman said. Clients also have to sign a retainer agreeing that their attorney-client relationship will end after their questions are answered, she said.

As the site administrator, SLS is providing some quality control by making sure the volunteer attorneys do not have any disciplinary issues with their law licenses and provide legally accurate answers, Backman said.

Attorneys can ask further questions of clients through the computer program, Backman said.

"The attorney is in the driver seat," she said.

SLS will steer complex questions that would benefit from more in-depth legal services to its own staff, she said.

SLS hired Jonathan Caez as the site administrator. Caez sends out clients' questions to attorneys and encourages attorneys to respond to questions in the queue, Backman said. Cindy Fernandez, a paralegal as well as SLS' executive assistant, also will be supporting the project.

Providing a legal answer is going to empower clients and give them hope that there is someone on the other end who cares, Backman said.

The judiciary is going to assist the program by marketing it to potential pro bono volunteers and to potential clients, especially through the court's outreach program in the state's libraries, Solomon said.

The program also has been launched in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wyoming.

Software developers at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz built the Free Legal Answers website.                     

Chatbot Helps People Facing Homelessness

A British programmer has developed a chatbot to help people find housing after being evicted and to prevent homelessness, The Washington Post's Karen Turner reports. Joshua Browder had already created an online robot for people to challenge their parket tickets in London and New York City.

The DoNotPay bot now allows people to "easily file for government housing without paying a cent." One legal aid attorney, however, told The Post that "tenants often need in-person legal assistance to help them fight eviction from landlords armed with their own lawyers."

Divided ABA Passes Resolution to Aid Justice Gap, Allow More Nonlawyers to Provide Legal Services

A divided American Bar Association has passed a resolution to create model rules for states that want to license non-lawyers to provide legal services. On one hand, the measure would allow more states to follow the lead of Washington and Utah in allowing non-attorneys to help pro se litigants in some types of matters and in trying to close the access to justice gap. On the other hand, some lawyers, including the leaders of the ABA's Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division, think that the measure could cost solo practitioners clients and their livelihood. Michael Bologna, writing on Forbes, says that the ABA adopted "10 standards states should incorporate into licensing rules, professional certification processes and training curriculums being created for non-attorney legal professionals." William Johnston, head of the Delaware Bar Association, said, "'There are substantial unmet legal needs that are not being met by members of the organized bar,"' The Am Law Daily's Susan Beck reports.

Utah Approves New Legal Profession to Close Justice Gap

The Utah Supreme Court has approved a new legal profession: limited paralegal practitioners, The Salt Lake Tribune's Jessica Miller reports. The new legal professional category has been created to help more citizens access the justice system.

The LLPs could assist clients outside of the courtroom--but not inside--by filling out forms, representing clients in mediations or preparing settlements.

Utah Supreme Court Deno Himonas told Miller "'we need to come up with an economically viable model that will help improve access for those individuals in our civil justice system."'

Washington state has started a similiar intiative to use non-lawyers to help close the justice gap.

Closing Legal Services Gap Means Moving Beyond 'Access to Justice'

Dan Lear, director of industry relations for Avvo, writes on The New Normal Blog that lawyers need to move beyond "access to justice" initiatives to close the legal services gap because they are "entirely ineffective." He also notes that, under the traditional access to justice model, clients get one-on-one attention from attorneys, but this is inefficient. Moreover, some clients of modest means can afford to pay something and often have better access to technology and other resources "that would help them self-educate, receive unbundled legal services delivered partially or fully though technology or online, or navigate the legal system with only limited guidance from an attorney."

Appellate Court Curtails Legal Ghostwriting for Pro Se Litigants

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that attorneys can't ghostwrite court filings for pro se litigants unless they sign the documents and disclose how much they assisted with the documents, Nicole Benjamin blogs for JDSupra Business Advisor.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court addressed this issue of first impression regarding three attorneys who ghostwrote pleadings on behalf of pro se defendants in three separate debt collection cases. The case is FIA CARD SERVICES, NA v. Pichette.

Benjamin notes that some legal advocates favor ghostwriting because it's one way to unbundle legal services and provide pro se litigants greater access to the legal system. On the other hand, attorneys who ghostwrite court filings aren't held to account under rules of civil procedure and professional conduct. And pro se litigants, who get greater leniency from courts in how their pleadings are construed, could benefit unfairly, Benjamin writes.

More Entrepreneurs Needed to Address 'Epic Imbalance of Supply and Demand' in Legal System

Theresa Amato, writing in an op-ed in The New York Times, questions why the demand of Americans for legal services for life-altering civil matters can't be met by all the lawyers who are unemployed (The U.S. ranks 65th for accessibility of its civil justice, she notes).

The reason that unemployed lawyers can't plunge in right away to address the civil justice gap is because 86 percent of lawyers have six-figure debts, she says. But she offers some solutions: professors who have represented clients should be hired to train practice-ready lawyers. Congress should continue the program that forgives law-school debt for lawyers who work in the nonprofit or government sector for a decade. And more incubator programs should be funded by philanthropists to help young lawyers start "low bono" law offices in which clients are charged low prices for legal services.

Hat tip on this piece to my former law school classmate, Joe Ross, who has started a weekly newsletter of his own roundup of important legal news. Check it out at:

Washington Using Non-Lawyers to Help Close Justice Gap

The first non-lawyer legal technicians authorized to provide some legal services in Washington state have passed their qualifying examination, Robert Ambrogi blogs on Law Sites. Seven of nine passed.

The program seeks to help bridge the access-to-justice gap by licensing non-lawyers to provide legal advice in some areas, including domestic relations.

Blind Jurist Makes History On Michigan Supreme Court

When Richard Bernstein joins the Michigan Supreme Court in a few days, he will make history as the first blind justice in that state and one of the few judges with visual impairments in the country, Associated Press reports. Bernstein is having briefs for mid-January arguments read to him by an aide and memorizing the key points. He told the AP he internalizes "'the cases word for word, pretty much commit them primarily by memory. I'm asking the reader to pinpoint certain things, read footnotes, look at the legislative record."'

Bernstein, whose family has a personal-injury firm, spent $1.8 million of his own money to campaign for the Supreme Court on the slogan "Blind Justice."


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