Citizens Lend a Legal Hand
On November 23, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, city and state court and elected officials, legal service providers, and community partners gathered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn to celebrate the formal opening of Legal Hand, a unique, volunteer-driven justice project spearheaded by the Center for Court Innovation (CCI).
Legal Hand brings trained community volunteers to locations in vulnerable New York City neighborhoods, offering free legal information, assistance and referrals to residents struggling with legal problems that are compromising their wellbeing, health, safety and economic security. Attorneys train volunteers on how to provide basic information and support ─ such as how to access and use online legal resources ─ that can help reduce delays and prevent more serious legal issues down the road.
“When people are in trouble, they do not immediately look to the courthouse for assistance. Our goal with the Legal Hand Centers is to break down barriers between the community and the justice system and to demystify some of the simple steps people can take to protect their rights under the law. This will lead to more just outcomes, more crises averted, less litigation, and money savings for our state and local governments. Most important, the centers will contribute greatly in transforming the ideal of equal justice into a reality in New York,” said Judge Lippman.
NYLAG, The Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC were selected by CCI to participate in the one-year pilot. Each of the agencies is providing a staff attorney to work at one of three locations, training volunteers and providing legal advice as necessary. NYLAG Staff Attorney Sirrah Harris is onsite, training and assisting volunteers, at the Crown Heights location. Legal Aid is staffing an office in Brownsville, Brooklyn and Legal Services NYC is staffing an office in Jamaica, Queens. The Crown Heights project has already trained 31 volunteers in the areas of immigration, consumer debt, housing, public benefits, workers’ rights, and family matters. Each volunteer commits to one or two, three-hour shifts per week for at least four months.
The idea for a localized, citizen-driven approach to providing legal support was first suggested to the Chief Judge by Helaine Barnett, Chair of the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice. It was inspired by Citizens Advice, a nonprofit in the United Kingdom that provides free, confidential information and advice to assist people dealing with financial, legal, consumer and other problems.
“Legal Hand is just the most recent example of how Chief Judge Lippman and the Center for Court Innovation are working to find creative solutions to address the need for civil legal services in our City and State. It is also a unique solution to the problem of limited legal resources: the project engages the public by tapping the deep reservoir of talent and energy within our own communities and creating a welcoming place close to home where one neighbor can help another,” said Beth Goldman, NYLAG’s President and Attorney-in-Charge.
The Center for Court Innovation, a partnership between the New York State Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York, was founded in 1996 to create innovative programs that test new ideas for solving social justice problems. The Center performs original research evaluating innovative programs and assists judges, attorneys, justice officials, and community organizations interested in introducing new and proven tools to reform the justice system.