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Authors

Fern Fisher

Abstract

This Article discusses a program implemented by the New York State Unified Court System in order to address the justice gap for unrepresented litigants. Part I of this Article discusses the process behind creating the New York Navigator’s Program (discussed in more detail Part II), a program designed to help non-lawyer “Navigators” to assist unrepresented litigants in a limited capacity when the litigants appear before different types of state courts. The Navigators must complete training before they are able to assist the litigants. This program has been well received, as Part IV discusses, and has helped more and more unrepresented litigants achieve better results. Another significant accomplishment of the program is the perception of unrepresented litigants that they received procedural fairness. Lastly, this Article seeks to provide advice and a variety of important considerations for other jurisdictions that are considering implementing a similar program.

The United States ranks a surprising 19 out of 113 countries on civil justice issues on the Rule of Law Index prepared by the World Justice Project. The ranking is due in part to the country’s failure to provide accessible legal assistance. The recent ranking has been preceded by low rankings for the same reason in other years. President Trump has proposed the elimination of funding for the Legal Services Corporation (“LSC”) which is the primary provider of civil legal services to the poor in the United States.

It has been estimated that 57 million low-income individuals will be eligible to receive legal help in 2018, and that a serious justice gap exists due to the insufficient funding the Legal Services Corporation receives. This justice gap means that nationally, LCS-funded programs provided legal assistance to only 1.8 million people in 2016. An American Bar Association Commission recently found that the majority of low-income and moderate-income individuals receive inadequate civil legal assistance. In order to address the justice gap crisis, state court systems, like the New York State Unified Court System, have implemented a continuum of legal assistance measures9 to meet the needs of the over 1.8 million unrepresented litigants that have cases in various courts. The Court Navigator program, which utilizes non-lawyers to help unrepresented litigants navigate the New York courts, is one measure that shows great promise. This writing explores programs that inspired the New York Court Navigator program, the operation of the program, and suggestions to other jurisdictions for the implementation of Navigator programs.

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