Bronxites who are being sued in civil court over consumer debt should know they have a place to go for help.
CLARO, Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office, provides free legal advice at the Bronx County Courthouse for residents with consumer debt who are being sued by either an original creditor or debt buyer.
CLARO NYC is run by the Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham Law School under the New York State Unified Court System’s Access to Justice Program, and involves partnerships with the Bronx County Bar Association, New York City Bar, Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham Law School, Legal Services NYC-Bronx and the NYU Law School Debtors’ Rights Project.
CLARO NYC program was founded in 2007, and expanded to the Bronx in 2009, said Wilma Tamayo, program coordinator at the Feerick Center and session administrator for the Bronx CLARO Program.
“At that time there were a lot of consumer debt cases in court,” said Tamayo.
Many people got into trouble with consumer debt during the financial crisis, when they lost jobs and fell behind on payments, she said. They would make partial payments and saw their balances grow because of fees, and were never able to pay it off.
Tamayo said many people are taken to civil court each year by original creditors or debt buyers, but most people being sued this way don’t have legal help, and the majority end in a default judgment in favor of the creditor.
This element of unfairness is part of the reason these cases present a social justice issue.
“These people don’t have the money to pay for legal representation,” she said. “The other side, they have representation.”
Some of the defendants CLARO helps were not properly served with the information, and are unaware of the issue until after a judgment has been entered against them in court, and they find that their bank account is restrained or they receive a notice of wage garnishment from their employer.
Others come to CLARO for legal advice when they receive the first notice that they are being sued. When seeking legal help from CLARO, Tamayo said the sooner you come, the better, but they help people in all stages of the process.
The Bronx CLARO program operates out of the Bronx County Courthouse each Thursday afternoon, and each session in the Bronx is run by volunteer attorneys, law students and Feerick Center staff.
Since the beginning of Bronx CLARO, more than 240 volunteers have participated, said Tamayo, donating more than 6,300 hours.
“It speaks volumes to the passion our volunteers have,” she said.
When visitors come in, the law students do the initial intake with visitors, who then see an attorney to help file any legal documents they need for court. They also walk the visitor through the court process.
“For me and for everyone at CLARO, it’s important, it’s crucial that these defendants understand what’s going on and what they need to do step by step,” said Tamayo.
Tamayo said it’s important visitors know that CLARO does not represent the defendants in civil court, but that they prepare them to represent themselves.
“We give them tools, we give them the information they need in order to appear in front of the judge,” she said.