We are really excited about the potential of our new consumer debt project that launched recently here in New York City in partnership with MFY Legal Services. MFY Legal Services (MFY) is an independent, not-for-profit law firm that provides community-based legal representation to low-income New Yorkers in the areas of housing, public benefits, consumer rights, foreclosure, employment, civil rights, disability rights, and family matters. With a grant from the New York Community Trust, we are leveraging technology and legal expertise to help New Yorkers sued for consumer debt or harassed by credit agencies. While debt collection abuse is widespread, legal services organizations can only provide direct help to a fraction of those who need it.
Each year, tens of thousands of New York City residents go to court for a range of consumer problems – credit card debt, medical debt, identity theft, telemarketing and other financial scams – without an attorney. Without knowledge of the law or an attorney, they have very little recourse in these matters. Most are members of our city’s most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, recent immigrants and the working poor. For these populations, the results can devastate already strained incomes.
The new NYC Consumer Debt Defense Project puts information in the hands of low-income New Yorkers sued for consumer issues and increases the capabilities of the attorneys serving them.
Last month, we launched the new, automated legal forms for pro se litigants, giving low-income New Yorkers the tools to advocate for themselves. The information is available on LawHelpNY. The online forms for pro se litigants include:
- Answer to a Complaint
- Demand for Documents
- Debt Verification Letter
The legal advocacy forms were launched in December 2012 and have been met with enthusiasm from consumer advocates. They allow legal services and volunteer attorneys to quickly and efficiently generate high-quality legal documents. Four online document assembly forms were developed as part of the project for use by pro bono attorneys, law students, and legal services advocates. Specifically, these templates produce:
- Answers to a Complaint
- Demands for Documents
- Debt Verification Letters
- Oppositions to Motions for Summary Judgment
The forms have been particularly effective in clinical settings where advocates often face an overwhelming demand for services with a limited window of time.
For example, the template for Opposition to a Motion for Summary Judgment revolutionizes the way cases are handled in New York. It allows an advocate to create, in a matter of minutes, a thoroughly researched and carefully drafted response that previously would have required hours to prepare. Litigants can then file those papers and effectively oppose the motion, thus robbing savvy plaintiffs’ attorneys of one of their favorite weapons for taking advantage of pro se individuals. Dora Galacatos of the Feerick Center calls this tool “a huge leap forward in practice.”
Legal aid and pro bono attorneys can find these forms in the new project website that also includes a library full of resources (including training materials, important case law, sample documents, and more), up-to-date news, an events and training calendar, recent case law, podcasts and webinars, and a listserv that is the primary discussion forum on consumer debt defense for consumer advocates in New York City.
In New York City, volunteer attorneys in the CLARO clinics are already using the new site and forms. CLARO is the leading consumer debt clinic providing limited legal advice to low-income New Yorkers sued by debt collectors. Mark Weliky, Pro Bono Coordinator and Executive Director of the Queens Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc. told MFY and us that the forms are, “… an invaluable resource in dealing with the complex issues being faced by persons sued for an alleged credit card debt. The vast majority of these litigants cannot afford to hire legal counsel and this new program will help our CLARO clinics to provide free legal assistance to these individuals.”
This project is excellent example of the role Pro Bono Net plays in narrowing the justice gap, combining innovative technology with strong collaborations to benefit vulnerable and low-income individuals who go to court without an attorney and face potentially devastating situations.