New York's chief judge has taken steps to provide homeowners facing foreclosure legal representation free of charge.
Jonathan Lippman, the chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, said that it is unfair that in foreclosure action, banks hold the edge as they can afford lawyers whereas most homeowners, who face foreclosure actions, cannot afford one.
It's such an uneven playing field, Lippman said. Banks wind up with the property and the homeowner winds up over the cliff, on the street. It doesn't serve anyone's interest, including the banks.
Hence, Lippman has laid down new rules under which any homeowner in foreclosure who does not have a lawyer will be provided with one with the assistance of legal aid groups or other pro bono groups.
The judge said the defendant's lawyer will also serve the interest of the court by making the procedures more efficient.
The new procedures will be in place in Queens and Orange Counties in the next few weeks and legal aid groups are bracing to handle the influx. According to court data, foreclosure filings in Queens have surged 217 percent, to 5,839 cases from 2005 to 2009.
Lippman said the defendant's lawyer will also serve the interest of the court by making the procedures more efficient.
In his annual State of the Judiciary speech in Albany on Feb. 15, Lippman cited the 1963 ruling by the Supreme Court that state courts are required to provide legal counsel to destitute defendants in criminal cases. Today it is an equally obvious truth that people in civil cases dealing with the necessities of life can't get a fair day in court without a lawyer, he said.
To help pro bono and legal aid groups, Lippman has urged the state legislature to commit spending an additional $100 million in legal services programs over the next four years.
This is the second time Lippman has made a move to ensure that foreclosure procedures in New York courts are followed properly.
Last October, Lippman said lawyers pursuing foreclosure in New York are personally liable for the accuracy of the documents they represent.
Lippman's orders came in the wake of a scathing criticism launched by the attorney generals of all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia who are jointly investigating whether mortgage companies have violated state laws.
At the center of the investigation were complaints that many banks were using 'robo-signers' (dubbed so because of the speed with which they signed thousands of foreclosure affidavits a month without reviewing them carefully), a practice that led to unfair eviction of thousands of homeowners.
The attorney generals said the corner-cutting and slipshod paperwork (by lenders) are troubling and may impose financial penalties where appropriate. They also said they might require lenders to change the way they process mortgages and foreclosures.
The banks accused of hiring robo-signers include JPMorgan Chase & Co, Wells Fargo & Co., Ally Financial Inc. (formerly GMAC) and Bank of America. These banks froze all foreclosures nationwide while they reviewed their filings for errors.
In New York, which is one of the 23 states where court approval is needed to foreclose, there are nearly 80,000 foreclosures actions pending in the courts.