Policy Swap Bungles Tool for New York tenants pursuing repairs
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Law360 (June 4, 2021, 3:33 p.m. EDT) – New York City courts have reinstated pre-pandemic policies that upset a website that thousands of unrepresented tenants have used to sue for apartment repairs since the coronavirus forced things online, according to the association that developed the site.
The portal, developed by JustFix.nyc in collaboration with the courts, was launched in April 2020 to help tenants sue their landlords to resolve issues such as gas outages, mold and rat infestations while the courts were closed due to the pandemic. The site met an urgent need, as tenants without a lawyer usually file these cases in person.
To ease the transition to a virtual platform, according to JustFix, the court waived the requirement that tenants submit a $ 45 fee or complete a form called a request for poor people assistance. The court also waived a rule that tenants have their documents notarized, another step often performed at the courthouse.
But recent rejection of applications suggests that a sharp return to original policies could undermine JustFix, which currently cannot legalize documents or accept payments, and create logistical hurdles for cash-strapped tenants.
“Based on our communications with the court regarding recent changes to the way registrars will handle HP actions, we believe the JustFix HP tool will be rendered unusable,” said JustFix executive director Georges Clement, in a statement to Law360.
In order to initiate a repair action, also known as an HP action, using the JustFix tool, tenants answer a series of questions, and the tool generates the documents and submits them directly to the court. . If the case is accepted, the tenant must serve their landlord and possibly have a remote hearing. Some tenants are also paired with a free lawyer.
JustFix claims to have handled more than 3,040 cases since the launch of the portal.
In a first indication of problems, the association received a notice from the Queens Housing Court on Thursday stating that a tenant must have their petition legalized and pay the $ 45 fee or submit a notarized affidavit saying they cannot afford.
A similar notice arrived from the Manhattan Housing Court on Friday. “Please note that in order to process this request, a notarized affidavit in support of a poor people claim must be included,” the notice reads. The “petition in this matter must also be notarized”.
Stephanie Brown, a tenant in Queens, told Law360 that she filed a petition through the JustFix portal on Wednesday and a staff member called on Friday and explained that she would need to fill out additional paperwork.
They sent [a form] to my brother-in-law, and he’s going to print it from his office and bring it to me today, ”Brown said.
Courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen told Law360 on Thursday that the reinstatement of the filing fee requirement coincided with the return judges and court staff in courthouses at the end of May.
“Recently, with the return of judges and other court staff to their courthouses, the Housing Court has resumed its long-standing practice of asking judges to review applications for assistance from poor people.” , Chalfen said. The court did not make a public message about the change, he confirmed.
Tenants who need help filing their cases can visit a help center in every housing court in the district “at any time during normal office hours,” Chalfen said, although people who have to pay a filing fee at the court cashier’s window “are strongly encouraged to call ahead to make an appointment with the cashier.”
Chalfen also said that the court “invited JustFix NYC to develop a system for the payment of court filing fees by filers remotely.”
JustFix deputy director Steph Rudolph said their team had little notice of the change and that developing any new tool would take time and resources. Such a tool would also require court permissions which the nonprofit does not yet have, they added.
Legal Aid Society supervisor lawyer Jessica Bellinder told Law360 on Friday that courts should not reverse pandemic-related adjustments that have streamlined court processes.
“We have a lot of people in New York City who for a number of reasons cannot easily get to the housing court due to a disability or incredibly busy work schedules,” Bellinder said.
“I think these barriers existed before COVID, and as we look for ways to make the courts accessible to people who had barriers before COVID, we need to keep those adaptations,” she said. “We have to make it more accessible, not less.”
–Edited by Brian Baresch.
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