Volunteer Lawyer Program Expands to Staten Island
The New York Legal Assistance Group in partnership with the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program has recently expanded our Volunteer Lawyer For the Day (VLFD) program to Staten Island Civil Court, the last of the five boroughs to benefit from this program. NYLAG already runs VLFD in the Bronx and Queens Civil Courts. The VLFD program was initiated by the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program to address the staggering increase in the Civil Court Consumer Credit docket following the economic downturn. NYLAG, along with our program partners the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project and the New York County Lawyers’ Association, operate VLFD programs in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens Civil Courts.
“The NY State court system is grateful that NYLAG stepped forward to start a VLFD consumer program in Richmond County. NYLAG’s presence insures that consumer defendants are represented which in turn helps balance the scales of justice. NYLAG’s commitment to providing quality legal services to the needy is evident by its participation in the VLFD program,” stated Fern A. Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for NYC Courts and Director, NYS Courts Access to Justice Program.
VLFD provides limited scope representation to pro se litigants who are being sued for consumer debts. Pro bono attorneys, law school graduates and law students, supervised by an on-site coordinating attorney with expertise in consumer credit law, advise clients of their legal rights, represent clients in court, negotiate with opposing counsel, and argue before a Judge. Student volunteers gain invaluable courtroom experience, while seasoned attorneys are able to expand their practice areas and help provide access to justice for some of New York’s most disadvantaged civil litigants.
When VLFD was launched in 2009, 99% of consumer defendants were unrepresented while 100% of plaintiffs had attorneys. The VLFD program helps to level the playing field, ensuring that both parties approach the case on equal footing. Although the services are limited in scope, the program is invaluable in its ability to help pro se defendants understand their rights in litigation and learn how to assert those rights during the course of the lawsuit.
Most consumer credit cases involve credit card accounts that have been purchased by third party debt buyers for pennies on the dollar. Defendants often do not recognize the account for which they are being sued, either because the debt is owed by someone else, their identity was stolen, or because the account has been sold so many times that defendants do not recognize the name of the plaintiff.
To win these cases, debt buyers employ deplorable tactics, such as improperly serving or failing to serve defendants in order to win cases by default. When the defendant does appear in court, the creditor will postpone trials hoping defendants will fail to show up, file motions that a pro se defendant does not understand, or try to get the defendant to admit to owing the debt. To avoid having to take time off for court appearances, or to maintain their credit score, debtors often enter into unaffordable settlement agreements, without fully understanding the consequences. The problem is so acute (State regulators received more than 20,000 complaints about debt collection practices in 2014.), that this year several new regulations went into effect protecting the rights of consumers unfairly harassed and often defrauded by unscrupulous debt collectors.
We became aware of a particularly critical need for assistance in Staten Island due to our NYLAG foreclosure prevention attorneys who were already on the ground assisting clients with financial hardships, as well as the work our consumer protection attorneys were doing through a separate project assisting those negatively affected by the economic downturn with debt, in order to become financially stable. Unlike some of the other boroughs, clients in Staten Island seemed much more isolated in terms of obtaining legal services, especially defendants facing consumer credit actions in court.
Staten Islanders are coming to court struggling with credit card debt, medical debt and landlord disputes. But in addition to collectible debt, many consumers we see in Staten Island Civil Court are homeowners facing foreclosure or liens on their homes. These are people who are often older, unemployed or underemployed, or retired or disabled and living on a fixed income.
According to NYLAG staff attorney Sarah Rosenthal, who serves as a VLFD coordinating attorney in all three boroughs, “The people we work with in Staten Island often had been going along fine, meeting their obligations until something happened – a divorce, job loss or illness – that suddenly puts stress on their ability to keep up with their payments. Opposition attorneys prey on their fear, knowingly misrepresent facts, and press hard for a settlement. Sometimes, all it takes for the plaintiff to back down is having a lawyer there who knows our clients’ rights. But if a settlement is reached, at least we can make sure that it is fair.”
In court, Sarah supervised the work of Walsy Saez, a Fordham Law graduate who was with NYLAG until June participating in New York State Courts’ Pro Bono Scholars Program – another innovative court program introduced last year by Chief Judge Lippman. Walsy joined NYLAG fresh from taking the bar exam, and began working with our unit on consumer protection matters, including joining Sarah in Staten Island Civil Court.
According to Walsy, VLFD has been an invaluable learning experience: “I have had the chance to advise clients about their options, read body language and unspoken signals that are so important in a courtroom setting, correct opposing counsel when they are out of line, and push for what’s best and fair for the defendant. Most of all, I have seen how even the simplest legal procedure can damage people’s lives – and what a difference a lawyer can make.”
The Staten Island program is still in its pilot stage, but in the last six months we have assisted on 171 consumer cases. Overall, since its inception, NYLAG’s VLFD program has provided assistance on 6,996 cases, and helped defendants avoid making over $3 million in unnecessary payments. These numbers alone demonstrate the incredibly high impact nature of this project and its concrete outcomes on improving people’s lives.
Thanks to our talented VLFD team, and our partnership with the NYS Courts Access to Justice Program, we have been able to have a positive impact on vulnerable New York families who need our assistance most, and pave the way for better advocacy on behalf of consumer debtors who are so often stigmatized and marginalized.