Brooklyn Housing Court Bar Association hosts supervising judge to discuss changes
Michael Rosenthal has been practicing law for three decades in Brooklyn and has been president of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association for nearly as long. In that time, he said, he has never seen more changes to the Housing Court than he has in the last two years.
Some of those changes have been positive, like a newly imposed Navigator Program which helps people find their way around the courthouse, and some have made things more difficult for practicing attorneys.
To help with some of the confusion, and perhaps to improve upon negative changes, Rosenthal invited Hon. Cheryl Gonzales, supervising judge of the Kings County Housing Court, to the group’s monthly meeting so KCHCBA members could discuss the changes with her directly.
“There have been more changes in the housing court in the last two years than most of the time that I’ve been practicing,” Rosenthal said. “And the changes are not over; there is more to come. We appreciate that Judge Gonzales agreed to meet with us. This way, we can have an open discussion in which we talk about our problems, what we like and what we don’t like.”
Gonzales opened the discussion by talking about a follow-up report that the Office of Court Administration published recently on the changes. The biggest change was the Universal Access to Legal Services (Right to Counsel) program which assigns free lawyers to tenants who cannot afford them for the duration of their cases.
The program is currently in the first year of a five-year rollout. In Brooklyn, only people from four zip codes are currently eligible, but the plan is to expand that to the entire borough by the end of the rollout. Judge Gonzalez said that currently tenants are represented about 30 percent of the time, compared to just over 1 percent prior to the program’s implementation.
Two more changes coming in the next few months are new, plain-language notice of petition and e-filing.
“Both of those things are supposed to happen midyear,” Judge Gonzales said. “E-filing is close; it will be voluntary. I will welcome it only because recently I had a petition that was altered after the decision and e-filing makes it harder to change. I see the value in it.
“The plain-language notice of petition will inform tenants of the Right to Counsel program and direct them to the court’s website so they can determine if they are eligible or not,” Gonzales continued. “The goal is to have the tenants meet with their attorneys before they go to court so that we can eliminate the need for adjournments in most cases.”
Other changes that were discussed included new preliminary conference orders that are meant to streamline trials, and the introduction of mediation from the Peace Institute in cases in which both sides are self-representing.
“We have mediation on Thursdays, day and night,” Gonzales said. “Right now they’re working with the double pro se cases doing mostly holdovers, but they are currently training in other areas. It has been challenging having that many pro se cases on one day so we’re working with the mediators to do it over two days.”
Once the topics changed to courthouse wi-fi, newly staggered calendars and status calls, there was a lot to discuss as the attorneys in attendance explained to the supervising judge what their experiences have been.
“This has been really helpful,” said attorney Charles Wasserman. “I’m glad we got to talk about the wi-fi because that has been an issue in the courthouse that I wouldn’t have even thought to bring up if the judge didn’t mention it to us.”
Attorney Edward King, who has been practicing law in Brooklyn for 35 years, also attended Thursday’s meeting. King is running for a countywide position on the Civil Court bench in the June 25 primary and wanted to make a pitch to the attorneys in attendance.
“During my career, I’ve been a law clerk to a Civil Court judge, a law secretary to a Supreme Court justice, I’ve been an administrative law judge and I’m a U.S. Army veteran,” King said. “Most of my practice has been in the Civil Court and a great deal of that has been on the landlord and tenant side. I feel like I’m one of you. When I walk into the court, what I really want is a judge who will listen to what I’m saying, who understands the law and who will give me a fair shake. That’s all you can really ask for.”