In 2017, when New York became the first city to enact a Right to Counsel, or Universal Access law entitling low-income residents to free legal representation in eviction proceedings in housing court, it immediately proved to be a game-changer. The program—aimed at reducing homelessness–has contributed to a significant increase in the rate of tenant representations in court, according to data from the NYC Office of Civil Justice.
And since 2013, there has been a 47 percent drop in the number of tenant evictions in the City. “The substantial reduction in residential evictions by marshals is a testament to the critical difference that providing counsel makes in protecting tenants from evictions from their homes and neighborhoods,” said Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks in a press release from City Hall.
But logistical challenges remain, including finding and training enough qualified lawyers to handle the increased number of cases. CAMBA Legal Services, Inc. (CLS) has received funding to represent clients in eviction cases and has a highly skilled staff who handle the cases, but has hired many newly admitted attorneys to keep up with the implementation of the new Right to Counsel initiative.
“The goal is to level the playing field for tenants in housing court,” said Senior Counsel David Fleischer of Haynes and Boone, LLP in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Through the Attorney Emeritus program, Fleischer was put in touch with CLS to assist on eviction cases. He has teamed up with fellow veteran attorney David Ratner, formerly of Hartman, Ule, Rose & Ratner, LLP to develop an eight-hour trial training program for roughly 25 CAMBA staff attorneys. The program was presented at Haynes and Boone’s New York office during two, four-hour sessions in August and September.
Fleischer has represented clients in complex commercial disputes for more than 25 years. He participates in the New York State Unified Court System’s “Attorney Emeritus” program, which pairs experienced trial lawyers 55 years of age and older with approved pro bono legal service programs. Ratner has represented tenants for his entire career, first at a legal services program and then in private practice. Recently retired, Ratner has been eager to share his deep experience handling cases in Housing Court.
“What’s lacking to some degree, and this is perfectly understandable, is the training for those attorneys to hit the ground running to be able to go into court and feel confident,” said Ratner in an interview with amNY.
CLS staff attorney Claunick “Nick” Durounville found the instruction very helpful and felt that Fleischer and Ratner “gave a very explicit structure for how to go about developing a theory of the case then following through on trial preparation and trial practice.”
The Right to Counsel initiative, currently available only in selected zip codes, is being phased in and is expected to be available City-wide by 2022, benefitting as many as 400,000 New Yorkers.