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VLP attorney advocates for unrepresented people in consumer debt cases

Cherubin: courts need to improve communications

September 4, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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A self-represented litigant from Brooklyn had a consumer debt case in the Civil Court that was adjourned due to the COVID-19 crisis. On Aug. 8, the crisis was not over but the new court date had come around. The litigant was told that her case was unlikely to take place but was never notified otherwise, so she showed up that day only to be turned away.

Sidney Cherubin, the director of legal services at the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) recently testified at a hearing in front of the NY State Senate on Friday, Aug. 21 that this scenario has played out too often in Brooklyn courts.

“‘I was told to go, so I went,’ [the litigant] said. She is elderly and was recovering from a minor surgery,” Cherubin explained. “She told me that she had to take a taxi to the courthouse, and when she got there, she was turned away at the door. She is still very nervous about the outcome of her case. This scenario could have easily been avoided with proper communication.”

Cherubin was at the hearing that day to advocate on behalf of unrepresented litigants who struggle to navigate the complex court system during normal times, and who can be more easily confused since COVID has shaken up the court system.

His message: improve communication to litigants and legal advocates, develop policies, procedures and access to technology for unrepresented litigants, and ensure that access to justice remains a priority as the court continues to reopen completely.

“When the VLP recently reached out to the Civil Court for clarification on the filing of answers, we received contradictory responses,” Cherubin said. “One clerk said that answers can be filed in person at the courthouse, and another clerk said no one is allowed to enter the courthouse and that answers must be mailed to the courthouse.

“This lack of information has forced litigants to take undue health risks to navigate the legal process, including traveling to the courthouse to access court files, file papers, and attend court hearings, risking contracting or transmitting the coronavirus.”

Cherubin said that in that week, the VLP had assisted 12 litigants who reached out because they were uncertain with the status of their cases and said they had not received any notification about postponement.

The VLP helps to run two programs through the courts — the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO), and the Consumer Debt Volunteer Lawyer for a Day (VLFD) program. These two programs combined to help people in more than 3,000 matters in 2019 and assisted in over 800 in 2020 before they were shut down in March.

“Without easy access to these programs, pro se litigants will find themselves at a disadvantage when faced with plaintiffs with far greater experience, resources, and representation,” Cherubin said. “Low-income clients who do not have access to technology need to find ways to  meaningfully and fully participate in virtual court — we need the court’s help to ensure that these clients are not left by the wayside and slip further through the justice gap.”

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