Pro Bono News

Increasing Tenants' Access to Counsel Has Raised Court Efficiency, Fairness, Judges Say

Monday, September 24, 2018

Increasing Tenants' Access to Counsel Has Raised Court Efficiency, Fairness, Judges Say

"Progress toward universal access to counsel for tenants in New York City has led to a more fair and balanced courtroom and has—so far—not overwhelmed the city’s housing courts with an influx of new litigation, judges from the city’s courts testified at a public hearing in Albany on Monday.

The program is still in its earliest stages, which is why Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks cautioned against concluding its impact less than a year after its start.

“If the Housing Court can’t absorb that additional litigation I think we have a real problem on our hands,” Marks said.
The three-hour hearing was on access to civil legal services statewide, which New York leads on nationally. The state judiciary allocated $100 million in grants for civil legal services in its last budget.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore presided over the hearing. Marks and the four presiding judges of the Appellate Divisions were also on the panel, including Justice Rolando Acosta of the First Department, Justice Alan Scheinkman of the Second Department, Justice Elizabeth Garry of the Third Department and Justice Gerald Whalen of the Fourth Department. New York State Bar Association president Michael Miller was also on the panel.

Most of the first hour focused on legislation signed last year by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to guarantee legal representation to low-income tenants in the city’s housing courts. The first phase of that program started last October.
According to the city, only about 1 percent of tenants had representation in Housing Court before the law. The goal is to offer counsel for all low-income tenants in New York City, which would be a substantial increase.

“I find it hard to believe that just 1 percent of the tenants were represented by counsel and now we’re looking in a few years at a large majority of tenants represented by counsel,” Marks said.

Judge Jean Schneider, the citywide supervising judge of the New York City Housing Court, said they will continue to monitor any backlog or issues with efficiency as the program continues to be phased in, but that there have not been any major problems so far. The program is scheduled to be fully implemented in 2022.

“There are a greater number of cases being referred out to trial but not a greater number of cases being tried to completion,” Schneider said. “I find that very interesting and a little reassuring that perhaps there’s a little more jockeying going on to the very end.”

Schneider responded to concerns from some that greater access to counsel will increase caseloads in Housing Court and lead to backlog. Right now the program has only been implemented in 15 New York City zip codes, three in each of the five boroughs. She said an estimated 60 percent of tenants could have representation citywide when the program is fully implemented..."

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