Have you visited a courthouse recently? I encourage you to do so. The hallways are filled with activity as well-dressed lawyers dash from courtroom to courtroom. Inside the courtroom clerks are calling out names, people are standing before a judge and often a proficient English speaker wonders whether that really is the language being spoken. Confusion and fear mark the face of most people who find themselves caught in the legal system facing serious issues like housing which can result in homelessness.
Recognizing this reality judges in New York are piloting a program using trained non-lawyers to help. As Judge Lippman says, “We know that there are many functions that only a lawyer is qualified to perform. Only lawyers have the education, training, examination standards, and ethical mandates that go hand in hand with full legal representation. But there are people without a law degree who nonetheless are more than capable of assisting unrepresented litigants. At a time when millions of litigants can neither afford to pay a lawyer nor are fortunate enough to have the services of a legal services provider, we need to look to others to step in.” (March 11, 2014 address at 20th annual William Brennan lecture series). Doctors do this with trained medical assistants and nurse practitioners – why not expand access to justice through trained legal assistants called Navigators?
The New York Law Journal published an article this week on this novel program which is also being piloted in the state of Washington. Not surprisingly the program is coming under attack by lawyers who believe it raises false expectations and crosses over into the unauthorized practice of law. The program is designed to answer questions on process, point to proper forms, and have someone present to stand beside a person in court or in negotiations with lawyers. Just having someone with some knowledge of the completely foreign court process helps alleviate fear. What is more these individuals can help connect social services that may be helpful to a person to avoid homelessness which a lawyer is not likely to provide. Honestly lawyers are generally not well known for allaying fears either. The Navigators refer people to legal aid organizations if that is what is needed but often what is needed is simply understanding the process, the right forms to present and whether one is being taken advantage of because they are not represented.
I agree there can be a fine line between pointing people to forms and giving legal advise on the completion of forms, but we’ve walked that line for years in the immigration arena where non-lawyers can be trained and certified to help navigate that complex system. Why not expand that to housing and consumer issues? Why not expand it to other areas as well? The verdict is out but with the right safe guards I believe this can be a powerful tool for greatly expanding the involvement of more people in the work of justice. This is also an excellent opportunity for Christians to get involved, allay fears, and provide referrals to social agencies and places of worship for support. We can be the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of overwhelming fear and circumstances that bring people to courthouses across America. Let’s pray this opportunity is expanded. Let’s work together to achieve justice for all. Let’s get engaged as we go and do likewise.