Same Old House

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More than a year after state-level reforms restructured Housing Court, court officials say the new system is faster, more efficient, and more humane.

But some Legal Aid and Legal Services attorneys charge the reforms have been hard on tenants who don’t have lawyers–about 85 to 90 percent of those who pass through the court each year. The courts may move faster now, they say, but it’s no better at providing real justice.

The city’s Housing Courts, with more than 300,000 new cases a year, have always been fast-moving and chaotic. Judges deal with multiple cases simultaneously, repeated adjournments are the rule, and much of the business between landlords and tenants gets hashed out in the halls.

The reforms, which began in 1998, were designed to streamline the court–expanding hours, bringing on new staff, and reorganizing the scheduling system. Now trials can start almost immediately–as soon as the judge sends the case out to a separate, specialized courtroom with a dedicated trial judge.

According to a review released last fall by the city’s top civil court and Housing Court judge, Fern Fisher-Brandveen, the reforms have done their job. “Attorneys from both [landlord and tenant] sides have expressed their happiness with the Trial Parts,” the report reads. “Hallway negotiation is occurring less with the new changes.”

But in January, a group of Legal Aid and Legal Services lawyers sent Fisher-Brandveen a six-page memo slamming the new system. The courts are still baffling for unrepresented tenants, they say, and the new system encourages judges to quickly push cases to trial and out of their own courtrooms. Hallway dealing is still rampant, and court-employed attorneys don’t inform tenants of their rights. The report itself, the lawyers write, “appears to praise speed over the quality of justice.”

Justice Fisher-Brandveen defends the report’s general conclusions. Starting trials more quickly can benefit both tenants and landlords, she tells City Limits: “I don’t think delays are to the benefit of any party.”

Hallway negotiations have declined, she insists, “although the report concedes that we will never completely eradicate that.” As for court attorneys, she said, “it was indicated that one in particular had some problems. We did retrain him. I checked, and he’s doing much better.”

Fisher-Brandveen adds that the court reforms are an ongoing process: “We certainly have an open ear to what users of the court think.”