The majority of the consumers who are sued are minorities or senior citizens and many are poor. Most cannot afford to hire a lawyer: in 2011, less than two percent of consumer debt defendants obtained legal counsel. This means that they almost invariably enter the legal system woefully uninformed.
The result of this information gap is a system plagued with due process problems. The biggest problem by far is default judgments, which means that the plaintiff wins automatically because the defendant does not come to court to defend their case. In 2008, the default rate reached a mind-boggling 90% in the Bronx; now the default rate across all boroughs dropped to approximately 50.6% – still unacceptably high. Think for a moment about about what this means: half of people who are sued in these cases literally present no defense. No evidence; no trial; no settlement.
Much of this is the result of fraudulent service on the part of the plaintiffs, who notify the court of the lawsuit, but do not notify the defendant – banking on a default judgment. Many people only find out they have been sued when wages are automatically taken out of their already-small paychecks, often pushing them closer to the edge of extreme poverty.
Watch our short documentary on NYC’s consumer debt crisis here.
Just last week, when working with litigants at the Brooklyn Civil Court, we met a consumer debt defendant named Kim. With her hair tightly pinned, and looking dignified but obviously under stress, she explained, “I went to the bank one day and my bank account was frozen.” A trip to the courthouse revealed that she had been sued by a debt collector and improperly served a summons and complaint—in 2007. “I didn’t even know there was a judgment against me,” she said. Unaware that she had been sued, Kim lost the case by default. The debt collection agency froze her bank account and now Kim faces the repercussions of a lawsuit she never knew existed.
“They asked if I wanted to settle on the phone but I said no, I don’t want to settle over the phone,” Kim reflected. “I was confused and angry. Someone suggested I visit a CLARO office so here I am.”
The volunteer lawyers at the Civil Legal Advice Resource Office (CLARO) deal with cases similar to Kim’s on a regular basis. They shoulder the immense challenge of providing free legal advice to low-income litigants facing consumer debt suits. Yet even the herculean efforts of CLARO can’t adequately address the heavy caseload that clogs New York civil courts.
Considering the volume of civil debt suits in New York courts, the staff at CLARO would need to see 324 litigants a day to advise all unrepresented litigants! In order to address this massive demand, we need to multiply the impact of CLARO’s limited resources.
We collaborated with Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice, MFY Legal Services, Inc., and Pro Bono Net to develop an innovative platform for educating New Yorkers about how to navigate consumer debt suits. Today, we are proud to launch an innovative model for rights education, which can be found at clarovideo.org. Our free, animated legal information videos stand apart from other rights education resources. For one, the animated videos are easy-to-understand and engaging —free of legal jargon. Second, the video series is modular. After completing a short survey, the site populates a selection of videos tailored to the particular individual’s case, avoiding extraneous and potentially confusing material.
The animated, modular videos not only offer legal empowerment to citizens, but also create a two-way flow of information between lawyers and the public. The survey captures data about the population involved in consumer debt cases, giving us crucial information about issues faced by those in consumer debt suits.
These videos will help educate people who have been rightly or wrongly sued for consumer debt and help legal service organizations like CLARO reach thousands of clients currently beyond their capacity. Our website will empower New Yorkers, New Yorkers like Kim, and help secure due process for all in New York City’s consumer debt courts.