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Queens Chronicle

Access to Justice helps ‘level the playing field’

Program provides legal help for those facing cases alone in Civil Court

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Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2019 10:30 am

On a recent Monday, a man walked into the Queens Civil Supreme Court house in desperate straits. He was being sued by a third-party debt buyer over late credit card payments — a card that he didn’t remember owning. He was hard of hearing, unemployed and had just moved in with his elderly and sick mother. He had never been in court before. He had no attorney. He was nervous, upset and broke. He had less than $3,000 in his life savings, and his bank had frozen $2,600 of it.

He left that day with his case dismissed. He couldn’t believe it, and headed straight for the bank with a judge’s order to unfreeze his account — never mind that he could barely afford the $6 it cost to have a copy of the order certified.

But “all’s well that ends well,” said Helen Wrobel, who supervises the volunteer law clinic at the courthouse. She, along with her assistant Rita Wang, helped the man with his case free of charge. His reaction is not uncommon among the clients who come to the clinic, which provides legal help to people who do not have an attorney in cases involving consumer debt, uncontested divorces and tenant-landlord disputes.

According to Fern A. Fisher, the former deputy chief administrative judge of the New York City Courts, 98 percent of defendants are not represented by an attorney when sued for consumer debt. That figure is around 80 percent for those in housing cases. In uncontested divorce cases, Fisher said that unhappy couples are often forced to stay married because they didn’t file the paperwork right.

That’s why Fisher — who retired in 2017 — started the program, called Access to Justice, in 2009. In the wake of the recession the previous year, Fisher saw a growing need for legal services, specifically in civil courts. The United States is tied for 99th out of 126 countries in providing accessible and affordable legal services, dropping 30 spots from 2015, according to the World Justice Project’s 2019 Rule of Law index.

Fisher said that while the U.S. justice system has found ways to punish criminal offenders with great efficiency, it hasn’t figured out how to help people faced with civil cases — which impacts quality of life.

“Our country hasn’t come to grips that part of improving human condition is providing free civil legal services,” Fisher said.

That’s where the volunteer law clinic, in Room 25A on the second floor of the courthouse, is oftentimes a lifesaver.

* * *

As a civil court, not much fanfare surrounds the Queens courthouse at the corner of Sutphin Boulevard and 88th Street. The majority of cases that pass through don’t make the daily newspapers. But each one could potentially mark a monumental moment in the life of a plaintiff or defendant.

People “think the court system is just filing or sitting in a courtroom,” said Kevin Rothermel, who has worked as an administrator in the county clerk’s office for 34 years.

Rothermel’s job includes a variety of tasks, including financials, human resources and managing the e-file system. Since starting in the now-defunct records room in 1985, Rothermel has worked in just about every department in the court.

It is rare for an employee to stay at the court for that long, but Rothermel said that the changes are what have kept him at 88-11 Sutphin Blvd. for over three decades. He oversaw the digitization of the courthouse, helping write a grant to bring in a scanner for the first time in 1997. The ability to image documents, send emails and place paperwork online has greatly expedited the court process for everyone involved. It helped free up time and money for programs like Access to Justice.

“There used to be lines out there,” Rothermel said, gesturing down the hallway from the spacious clerk’s office in Room 102. “If you had a question, everybody had to come in.”

Still, noted Francis Kenna, who is in his eighth year as the chief deputy county clerk: “It’s not glamorous.” Kenna, who previously had a private practice, represents the office of the county clerk to the general public. Most of his days are spent outside with the public, answering questions and filing paperwork. Some days, he said, are very difficult. And his biggest complaint?

“People representing themselves when they shouldn’t be,” Kenna said.

* * *

Just like the court system itself has its stereotypes, so do the people who work in the courtrooms. Fisher received the Gary Bellow Public Service Award in 2006 from the Harvard Law School for the Access to Justice program, and she remains the only judge to receive that honor. To her, it’s a signal that judges can think outside the box and engage with the community that elected them.

“It’s a recognition that judges can serve the public interest in so many ways other than sitting on a bench,” Fisher said.

In the decade that the program has existed, Fisher has not heard a single complaint. People are grateful and don’t take it for granted. It almost seems too good to be true, according to Wrobel. She and her assistants are in the courtroom every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at 9:30 a.m., waiting for the calendar call and for the clerk to announce that there is free legal service available. Wrobel’s team stands up in the back, smiling and waving. Then, they are mobbed. Usually, there are more clients than they can handle.

Most people are confused by the concept. They can’t believe there is a free service. Wrobel has heard it all:

“Maybe it’s free now and you will bill me later?”

“If this is free, you must not be very good.”

“Did you get your law license yesterday?”

Ultimately, the clients wind up grateful. Though Wrobel’s team only does limited representation and does not go to trial with their clients, the amount of pre-trial help they can provide in just one sitting is immense. Prior to the program, those attempting to represent themselves against attorneys working for debt-buying or big credit card companies like VISA or American Express were getting “steamrolled.”

“We level the playing field,” Wrobel said.

Another perk the program provides is for law students. Wrobel, who works at St. John’s University School of Law, brings over a group of students who assist in the volunteer help clinic.

Wang graduated from St. John’s last December and helps with both the consumer debt and uncontested divorce programs. She is from China, and English is not her first language. She used to be scared of the courts because she was worried she would not be able to follow the language. The program has helped her gain more experience in court and to practice her English. Though she has already completed the 50 pro bono hours required for admission to the New York bar, Wang is still helping at the Queens courthouse.

She was at a loss for words when asked to describe the program’s impact.

“I don’t know how to describe this kind of feeling. It’s just incredible,” Wang said. “I never imagined that I can help people in court. Through this program and with help from Helen, I did.”

For Fisher and Wrobel, the program is a three-pronged win. The court solves an issue and is not seen as a rigid, heartless institution. It ensures that those without access to lawyers in civil cases are not exploited by that institution. And it helps train budding attorneys like Wang about the role of a lawyer to provide service to those who need it most.

The program has grown, according to Wrobel, seeing hundreds of cases of year.

“Only good comes out of it,” she said.

Welcome to the discussion.