Attorneys: Housing Court Reform No Help to Tenants

More than a year after state-level reforms restructured Housing Court, court officials say the new system is faster, more efficient, and more humane. Many Housing Court lawyers agree: for attorneys and judges, anyway, the system runs more smoothly.

But some Legal Aid and Legal Services attorneys charge the reforms have been hard on the 85 to 90 percent of tenants who have no lawyer. Housing Court may now move faster, they say, but it's no better at providing real justice.

The city's Housing Courts, with more than 300,000 new cases a year, have always been chaotic; judges deal with multiple cases simultaneously, repeated adjournments are the rule, and much of the business between landlords and tenants gets hashed out in the halls.

The reforms, which began in 1998, were designed to streamline the process-expanding hours, bringing on new staff and reorganizing a scheduling system that forced many tenants to spend the whole day waiting. Backlogs used to delay trials for weeks; now, trials can start as soon as the judge sends the case out to a separate, specialized courtroom that has a dedicated trial judge.

According to a review released last fall by the city's top civil court and Housing Court Judge Fern Fisher-Brandveen, the reforms have done their job. "[Attorneys from both landlord and tenant] sides have expressed their happiness with the Trial Parts," the report reads. "Hallway negotiation is occurring less with the new changes."

But last week, a group of Legal Aid and Legal Services lawyers sent Fisher-Brandveen a six-page memo that slammed the new system. The courts are still baffling for unrepresented tenants, they say, and the new system encourages all the other judges to quickly push cases to trial and out of their courtrooms. Landlords' lawyers use the threat of an immediate trial to intimidate tenants. Hallway deals are still rampant, court-employed attorneys don't inform tenants of their rights--and the report itself, the lawyers write, "appears to praise speed over the quality of justice."

"It's the same old, same old, with a prettier face and the court patting itself on the back for helping [lawyerless] litigants," said Legal Services' Sandy Russo, who helped draft the memo.

"The entire pressure is to get people physically out of the courtroom," fumed Legal Aids' Mimi Rosenberg. "There's been a serious setback to the limited possibility for arriving at a just resolve to a case. You simply can't put time before justice."

Justice Fisher-Brandveen, while admitting that Housing Court could still stand improvement, defended the report's general conclusions. Starting trials more quickly can benefit both tenants and landlords, she told City Limits: "I don't think delays are to the benefit of any party."

Hallway negotiations have declined, she insisted, "although the report concedes that we will never completely eradicate that." As for court attorneys, she said, "it was indicated that one in particular had some problems. We did re-train him. I checked, and he's doing much better. We are responsive to comments from the public."

Fish-Brandveen said that new equipment to show tenants instructional videos has been delayed, but should be online soon. "We certainly have an open ear to what users of the court think," she added. "Some of what they say, we're still working on."

from City Limits: New York's Urban Affairs News Magazine