A ribbon cutting ceremony was held on November 3 at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) in lower Manhattan to mark the opening of the NYLAG Legal Clinic for Pro Se Litigants in the Southern District of New York. The New York Legal Assistance Group was selected by the Board of Judges of the Southern District to staff a clinic providing free legal advice to plaintiffs and defendants appearing before the court without an attorney.

iStock_000000590693LargeThe SDNY is among a handful of federal district courts across the country seeking to expand legal assistance for the large number of pro se litigants in federal court by creating and funding an on-site legal clinic. Navigating the court system is a complicated, time-consuming and often overwhelming experience for litigants without an attorney. They are clearly at a disadvantage when they litigate against a party who does have an attorney.  Lawyers with the NYLAG Legal Clinic help to level the playing field by providing legal assistance to these unrepresented litigants, thereby enhancing access to justice and improving the litigation process for litigants and the court.

While the NYLAG Legal Clinic works with the SDNY’s Pro Se Intake Unit and its Office of Pro Se Litigation, the clinic and its staff operate independently from the Court, providing pro se litigants with independent legal advice and assistance.

“We are thrilled that NYLAG is willing to provide this critically important service to our pro se litigants in the most convenient of settings…right here in the courthouse,” said Colleen McMahon, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for NYLAG to collaborate with one of the premiere district courts in the country and to be in the forefront of the movement to expand pro se legal services in the federal courts,” said NYLAG President and Attorney-in-Charge, Beth Goldman.  “I want to thank the Board of Judges of the Southern District for its commitment to enhancing access to justice for low-income litigants and for selecting NYLAG as its partner in this vital endeavor. I also want to welcome the Pro Se Clinic’s Director, Robyn Tarnofsky, who comes to us with deep experience as a litigator in federal court and a passion for this new project.”

Before joining NYLAG, Tarnofsky was a litigation partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. She and a fulltime staff of two, an attorney and a paralegal, coordinate with the SDNY Pro Se Intake Unit to refer clients and arrange for meetings. Clinic staff is located onsite at the courthouse in space donated by the court. As the new clinic gains momentum, NYLAG will be working to recruit and train law firm and other private attorneys to further leverage resources on behalf of pro se litigants.

The NYLAG Legal Clinic provides litigants with a full range of pro se services, including counseling clients considering filing a case in the SDNY and, when the SDNY is not the appropriate forum for a case, advising clients to pursue their case in a different, appropriate court or forum where their claims can be adjudicated. The clinic staff provides substantive and procedural legal advice, reviews court orders and other processes and proceedings, and assists with preparation for depositions and various other hearings and court appearances. NYLAG attorneys have substantial experience in federal court practice and in the substantive areas in which most clinic participants will seek assistance, including civil rights litigation, employment discrimination, Social Security appeals, and mortgage foreclosure actions.

“Litigants go to federal court because they seek justice and the chance to have their voices heard. But too often, without an attorney, their case is lost before it can even begin. They do not understand the maze of procedural rules and mystifying terminology. They misfile, miss a key deadline, or make any number of mistakes that can be irrevocable,” said Tarnofsky. “Thanks to the Court’s commitment, we can help pro se litigants assess their chances for success, shape their complaints and defenses – and in the process make the best case, or mount the best defense, possible.”

USDCSDNYThe SDNY encompasses the counties of New York, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange, Dutchess, and Sullivan. The Court hears cases in Manhattan and White Plains. The Pro Se Clinic operates five days a week in Manhattan, and plans to offer services in White Plains in the future. For information, click here to view the flyer, or to contact the SDNY Pro Se Clinic, please call: 212-659-6190.