By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman was in Crown Heights on Monday to announce the creation of a new program call Legal Hand that will provide free legal advice and referrals to low-income residents from its storefront location on Kingston Avenue.
Legal Hand will provide assistance through a team of volunteers who will be trained and supervised by staff attorneys and the Center for Court Innovation, which will run the Crown Heights storefront as well as the Brownsville and Jamaica, Queens locations that will open in the upcoming weeks.
“The key feature of Legal Hand is that the help it provides does not come from lawyers, it comes from community volunteers who are specially trained to provide information and guidance to low-income individuals on how to navigate the court and social services systems and how to protect and represent themselves in a legal manner,” Lippman said. “This program is the newest foray in the campaign to close the justice gap in New York and the first of its kind in the country.”
Lippman has made it his top priority to close what he calls "the justice gap," to help ensure proper legal representation for all New Yorkers, regardless of income. The program is similar to the Navigator program that was launched last year, which provides people with non-lawyer assistance in Brooklyn Housing Court.
“Although they are not a substitute for lawyers, trained non-lawyers, like the Legal Hand volunteers, can make a world of difference for vulnerable people struggling with issues,” Lippman said. “The medical profession has long figured this out. When you go see a doctor, you also can see a physician's assistant, a nurse and other people who assist the doctor.”
The Legal Hand center will work in conjunction with three other legal service providers — the Legal Aid Society, Legal Services NYC and the New York Legal Assistance Group.
So far, Legal Hand has recruited 30 volunteers who are trained for emergencies that commonly arise in Crown Heights with the focus on housing, physical safety, immigration, family matters and benefits. Volunteers are trained in cultural competency to help the heavily immigrant neighborhood, and are also taught interviewing skills and are well-versed in the limits of advice they are able to provide as non-lawyers. They will work outside of typical 9-to-5 hours to accommodate everyone.
New York state Sen. Jesse Hamilton (20th Senate District) and Assemblymember Diana C. Richardson (Assembly District 43) were on hand to speak at the event. Hamilton called Lippman a visionary for the work he has done to close the justice gap and reform the bail system. Richardson touted Legal Hand as another place that her constituents could go for help while calling for other centers like it to be opened throughout her district, and cited the growing number of people fighting gentrification and ending up in Landlord/Tenant Court.
Everyone involved gave a special thanks to Helaine Barnett, who chairs Lippman's Permanent Commission on Access to Justice, for her help in the creation of Legal Hand.
“People can now come to this location, centrally located in the heart of our community, and they know that this will be a place they can turn to for resources and help,” Richardson said.