Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
Legal Services On the Go
Friday, December 16, 2011 - 12:00 AM
A large truck with the words “Access to Justice” written on it has been making its way through low-income communities on the outskirts of Brooklyn and the Bronx this week. Its purpose is to bring the courts and free legal services to people who often don’t have access either because of language barriers, physical disabilities or other issues. It’s the first of its kind in the state.
Lawyers from the New York Legal Assistance Group or NYLAG operate the mobile center with the New York State Courts’ full cooperation. The so-called justice on wheels truck is expected to make stops in 30 different locations a month and serve 2,000 city residents a year.
On Wednesday, the large vehicle stopped in the Mosholu section of the Bronx, where passersbys hung around outside contemplating unresolved legal matters. One man said he’d been dealing with identity theft problems since the late 1990’s and wondered if anyone in the RV could help. Another man said he’d been looking for assistance with a complicated case that involved medical malpractice and obstruction of justice. Tanisha Irizzary came with a more common problem: getting a divorce. “The cheapest way to get a divorce, that’s what I stopped to inquire about.” she said.
There’s limited space in the truck but several doors allow for privacy inside tiny meeting rooms not much larger than a bathroom. It even has a video conferencing room in the back that allows clients to appear before judges in civil county courtrooms across the city. While a full blown trial wouldn’t happen from the small room, some legal proceedings can, like granting orders of protection. Speaking from her chambers, Judge Fern Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge, appeared on a flat screen TV to demonstrate and explain that after exchanging paper work and interviewing a litigant, the order would be faxed over and the person in need would walk away with a copy.
Attorney Yisroel Schulman said several victims of domestic violence had stopped by. He said one woman was on her lunch break. “She literally was outside the vehicle and broke out in tears,” he said. “We brought her in. We spoke to her for a half hour and explained to her what her options are.”
Many of the meetings are to help people navigate the complicated bureaucratic social service system. Attorney Randall Jeffrey was trying to help Gladys Baerga–Colon, who uses a wheelchair, get more food stamps so that the roughly $900 a month she receives in workers compensation wouldn’t run out so quickly. “Right now I’m living under a lower economic situation in which there has been time that I don’t have money to eat,” Baerga–Colon said, her eyes welling up with tears.
(Photo: Gladys Baerga–Colon emerges from her meeting, pleased with the aid. Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)
The RV was purchased with private funds and NYLAG is paying the $300,000 it will cost to operate the vehicle annually. The Access to Justice truck, which started on Monday, has also been trying to partner with local non-profits to reach local communities and provide legal information and help.