CUNY Law Program Helps Needy
Litigants at Queens Civil court can get advice a block away at the Office of the Self-Represented.
By MATT HAMPTON
Russ Rodriguez doesn’t have time to change. At 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning, he’s dressed in a black mock-turtleneck sweater with black jeans and gray New Balance sneakers. He has plans to change for a meeting later in the day, but non-stop phone calls, and conversations with clients make it tough to find the time.
Rodriguez is the director of the Office of the Self-Represented, a small public service office located in Room 109 at the Queens Supreme Court building on Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica.
Across the street is a bank of storefronts, all inhabited by lawyer’s offices. Most of them have neon signs in the window, designed to catch the eye of Queens residents walking up the wide steps leading to the revolving doors of the courthouse.
The storefronts are there to catch last-minute litigants who have fallen through the cracks and are desperate for an attorney. Some citizens can’t afford them, which is where the Office of the Self-Represented comes in.
“I have no money,” Carlene Donald laments, sitting just outside the office. Donald has been separated from her husband for four years, but can’t afford an attorney to negotiate a divorce, and is afraid of what may happen to her if she tries to proceed without one.
“I don’t have a law degree. I haven’t a clue,” she adds.
Self-represented litigants represent a large portion of citizens on the docket in civil courts. In a study performed by the Princeton University Policy Research Institute in 2003, only ten percent of tenants appearing in New York City Housing Court did so with a lawyer. The number had dropped by two percent from a study conducted ten years earlier. Almost all landlords were represented by counsel.
In civil court, information and the ability to navigate the system are the most valuable weapons. They’re also the most costly.
“It’s really a very bleak situation for most New Yorkers,” says Community Legal Resource Network Director Fred Rooney. “There is a severe crisis in access to civil justice in New York City.” Though the new state budget sends more money toward a sampling of New Yorkers without the money for an attorney, litigants in civil cases still have few options.
“In a lot of ways it really undermines democracy, when justice is available only for those who pay and not available for those who can’t.” Rooney said.
With the help of CUNY Law School, and a grant from City Councilman David Weprin, self-represented litigants now have access to legal advice directly from an attorney, even if they can’t afford to hire one.
Up until now, the Office of the Self-Represented was staffed only with court employees. According to Attorney Tito Sinha, who started advising clients through the office this Wednesday, anyone who isn’t an attorney can only offer technical support, not advice.
Armed with information from an actual attorney, Sinha says, people can adequately defend themselves in the face of truly connected opposition, or just an opposing party with a well-paid lawyer.
“When people are representing themselves in court, under the pressure of time and in that courtroom, they may not have all those things in their mind,” he says.
When Donald found out she could speak to an actual attorney, she took two buses with a transfer and waited in the driving rain just for the opportunity to talk free of charge. In her desperation for legal advice, she has resorted to all manner of strategies in the past, including asking the advice of a lawyer on a radio call-in show, which she says was completely unhelpful.
“I came in [to the office] a depressed woman. I’m leaving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They gave me a sense of relief.”
Meanwhile, Rodriguez spends his day fielding calls and trying to bend the stiff bureaucracy of the legal system, all in the interest of helping underprivileged clients, people who can’t afford to pay the office a dime.
“There’s so much need, and so little resources,” he says between phone calls. “It gets — you’ll see why I don’t have time to change.” The phone then rings again, and Rodriguez answers an unheard question with a “good, crazy as can be here.” There is a four-foot tall shoot of bamboo on his desk, and his computer screensaver rotates images of relaxing environs like the Oregon wilderness or a resort in the Maldives.
“This is about a middle of the road day. Sometimes we have 70 or 80 people lined up all the way to the door, not including the number of times they come back to our window.”
Later in the day, Rodriguez emerges from the room across the hall from his office, wearing a blue button-down dress shirt, and slacks. Carlene Donald, sitting on the bench in the hallway, sees him and lights up. She thanks him vehemently for putting her in touch with Sinha, if only for 15 minutes. Rodriguez takes her gracious praise in stride.
“Oh good,” he says to her. “We try. One good thing about my job is there’s a lot of reward.”