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CBJC Partners with Access to Justice Program on New Civil Court Pro Bono Brief Services Project

by Kurt Denk, Pro Bono Counsel June 21, 2018

Through its Access to Justice Program, the New York State Courts Office for Justice Initiatives seeks to ensure access to justice for New Yorkers of all backgrounds, incomes, and special needs. The City Bar Justice Center was pleased to welcome Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Edwina G. Mendelson, Office for Justice Initiatives, to the City Bar on June 14, 2018 to kick off a new partnership that will supply pro bono attorneys to New York City Civil Court help centers in Brooklyn and Manhattan beginning this summer.

Dozens of attorneys interested in volunteering for the project attended a half-day training to learn about assisting unrepresented litigants with small claims, name change, consumer debt, and other civil matters. Prospective volunteers come from the ranks of all three of CBJC’s prime pro bono constituencies: City Bar members, and partner law firms and corporate legal departments – including more than a half-dozen American International Group (AIG) in-house attorneys. In her opening remarks, Judge Mendelson reminded those gathered that individuals assisted by the program “are our neighbors,” and observed that volunteer attorneys who devote their “time and expertise to increasing access to justice . . . make our city and state stronger, because only a just society is a truly strong society.”

Pro bono attorney involvement at the help centers will provide critical assistance to both the court, and to litigants. By providing basic information about legal forms, procedures, and timelines, the courts’ help centers seek to redress what’s often termed “the justice gap” – the myriad challenges faced by unrepresented litigants that include intimidation by court processes, lack of legal and procedural knowledge, low reading comprehension, and limited English proficiency. By partnering with the court, the new CBJC project will leverage the skills and generosity of pro bono attorneys to provide these basic navigational aids to many of the 1.8 million unrepresented individuals who enter New York’s courthouses each year seeking help.

CBJC volunteers will also lend a hand with something no court personnel can do, by virtue of being employed by the court – provide advice. Pro bono attorneys’ ability to go beyond providing information, to offering concrete legal advice can make all the difference to an unrepresented litigant unsure of how to vindicate or defend their rights. By listening to the basic facts comprising a help center visitor’s case and asking probing questions, pro bono attorneys can help identify and frame potentially meritorious claims and defenses, identify key evidence, and streamline issues.

Another key component of the new partnership will be its leveraging of CBJC’s successful, time-tested models for brief services delivery and pro bono supervision. Led by Libby Vazquez and Chris Schwartz, director and deputy director of CBJC’s Legal Hotline – the largest operation of its kind in New York City – the CBJC supervisory team will share best practices expertise with pro bono volunteers so they can together identify how to best assist help center visitors. CBJC is hopeful that with such a strong foundation, the new program will become an integral component of the Access to Justice Program’s mission of reducing the justice gap.

For more information about this program, contact CBJC Pro Bono Counsel Kurt M. Denk at 212-382-4714 or kdenk@nycbar.org.

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