Happy Birthday Mobile Legal Help Center
On December 14, 2011 NYLAG’s Mobile Legal Help Center (MLHC) rolled into the parking lot of the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center in the Bronx on its maiden journey. The 40-foot law firm on wheels was the culmination of two years of planning in partnership with the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program, and made possible thanks to a lead grant from the David Berg Justice Initiative. The goal was to bring legal services to low-income New Yorkers unlikely to travel to NYLAG’s main office or community intake sites because of poverty, age, geographic isolation or disabilities – people who, as a Wall Street Journal story on the launch of the vehicle put it at the time, “are living on the edge of society”.
“The Mobile Legal Help Center is an example of NYLAG doing what it does best: innovating to address unmet needs. In this case that means if people who need legal assistance can’t get to us, we will bring our legal staff to them,” said Beth Goldman, President and Attorney-in-Charge of NYLAG. “In the last five years the Mobile Legal Help Center has enabled us to serve the needs of thousands of people who would otherwise have remained isolated and unable to access the justice system.”
On December 16 NYLAG staff gathered to celebrate the MLHC’s fifth anniversary and enjoy a piece of birthday cake. On hand was Fern A. Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts and Director of the New York State Access to Justice Program. Judge Fisher was an early proponent of the idea that a vehicle could deliver mobile access to the court system, and worked closely with NYLAG to make the MLHC a reality. She was accompanied by Joann Torres, Community Outreach Coordinator for the NY State Unified Court System, who coordinates community activities involving the MLHC.
In the early days the MLHC staff was lean, just one paralegal and a driver going to neighborhood locations one to two days a week. But gradually, as demand grew, the staff expanded to accommodate a five- or six-day a week schedule that takes the vehicle to locations in New York City, Long Island and Westchester. Today the staff, led by Supervising Attorney Amy Hozer, includes a full time employment and public benefits attorney, a half time housing attorney, a law school graduate/fellow practicing family law, a law student fellow practicing housing law, a full time paralegal, a full time driver and two backup drivers.
“The growth has been tremendous; the MLHC has done 8,730 intakes over the course of the last five years. Last year alone we made 214 visits in collaboration with 70 different community partners and handled 1,843 legal matters affecting 4,213 household members,” said Hozer. She also noted that in all its time on the road the MLHC has been given just four parking tickets.
Pro bono attorneys from private law firms and the legal departments of New York banks and corporations travel with the MLHCevery day. They are trained in advance and do intakes under the supervision of MLHC staff. The work can be a particularly rewarding way to directly impact the lives of vulnerable people, and has the advantage of requiring the lawyer to make just a one-day commitment as compared to taking on longer term cases.
The top three areas of legal concern that draw people to the MLHC are housing, immigration and family law, but clients also seek assistance with consumer and financial issues, employment, education, advance planning, public benefits and the lingering effects of Superstorm Sandy. (The vehicle was particularly effective at getting to hard-hit areas in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 storm, when public transportation was down, and many community-based sites were too damaged to function.)
A key factor in the success of the MLHC has been the close involvement of the courts, elected officials, schools, and faith- and community-based organizations, which sponsor the vehicle’s visits to their communities and get the word out with flyers and phone calls and via social media. As trusted leaders in the community, their support also helps to legitimize the MLHC and the assistance it provides, which is especially important for certain populations, including immigrants, who might be afraid to seek help.
“NYLAG knew at the beginning that there were certain populations that we wanted to reach, including the elderly, people with mobility impairments, those without access to child care, and undocumented immigrants. And we have certainly accomplished that goal,” said Hozer. “But it has taken us years to fully understand the impact a highly visible 41-foot truck parked in a remote neighborhood can have. Our very presence has become a beacon of hope for people who had no idea that free legal assistance was available.”