Experimentation and Evaluation

Exciting innovation is happening all across the world in an effort to meet unaddressed legal needs and the justice chasm.   One experiment in the United States is the use of trained and supervised individuals without formal legal training to provide help to people who would otherwise go without legal assistance.  New York City’s version, the Court Navigator Program, was created in 2014.  “Court Navigators” aid unrepresented litigants in New York City’s Housing and Civil Courts by providing information, assisting litigants in accessing and completing forms, attending settlement negotiations, and accompanying unrepresented litigants into the courtroom.

The umbrella program included three pilot programs: The Access to Justice Navigators Pilot Project, The Housing Court Answers Navigators Pilot Project, and The University Settlement Navigators Pilot Project. Supported by the Public Welfare Foundation, researchers from the American Bar Foundation and the National Center for State Courts evaluated and assessed the appropriateness (whether the services as designed could potentially produce the kinds of outcomes desired), efficacy (whether the services showed evidence of producing those outcomes), and sustainability (whether it was reasonable to anticipate that the project could be maintained, expanded, and replicated in other jurisdictions) of the pilot projects.  Released last month, their pioneering, comprehensive report, “Roles Beyond Lawyers,” concluded that the projects had a positive impact. For example, tenants assisted by Navigators were 87 percent more likely to have their defenses recognized by the court and 56 percent more likely to say they were able to share their side of the story than those who were unassisted.  A significant benefit of the evaluation process was an opportunity to document and share what is working well and what could be improved.

As Judge Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for New York City courts and friend of PBI, said, “All of us who are big supporters of nonlawyers realize it’s a triage.  “We must do a patchwork quilt of services in order to make sure we balance the scales.”  The study confirms through rigorous review that this is effective triage that is making a real difference and an important tool as we strive to ensure access to justice for all.