The Navigator Program: Law Students Assisting Self-Represented Litigants in Nassau Supreme Court Matrimonial Center
In the fall of 2018, I was privileged to be able to participate in the Navigator Program, a special opportunity offered in Professor Andrew Schepard’s Family Law With Skills course. I entered the class with very little knowledge in the family law field and was determined to learn more about it. Taking part in the Navigator Program in the Nassau County Supreme Court Matrimonial Center was just the hands-on experience and exposure to the field that I was looking for.
The Navigator Program helps self-represented litigants with issues relating to their uncontested matrimonial cases. This program is overseen by the Honorable Jeffrey A. Goodstein, who is the Supervising Judge of the Matrimonial Center. Judge Goodstein visited our Family Law With Skills course early on in the semester and advised us of the tasks that we would be responsible for as Navigators. Participation in the program was limited, and I was very excited when I was notified that I was one of the 10 students selected.
At the outset, we were required to attend a training session where we received instruction on the duties that we would be responsible for in the Navigator Program. We were informed about how to initiate a divorce proceeding, the relevant court procedures, which forms needed to be submitted and in what sequence, and how litigants should file or respond to a motion. During this information session, we were advised that we were only permitted to provide unrepresented litigants with legal information, not legal advice. We were also told that we were not permitted to draft anything for the unrepresented litigants and were only permitted to answer their questions seeking legal information. Lastly, we were advised that as Navigators, we were only permitted to notify the unrepresented litigants of what avenues and actions they could take but could not recommend any actions. We were careful to heed these instructions when litigants walked in and ask us for legal advice.
The Matrimonial Center is a very busy place, and oftentimes self-represented litigants have nowhere to go to have their questions answered. The Navigator Program provides the unrepresented litigants with the opportunity to have their questions answered concerning paperwork and procedures that they need to understand in order to apply for and obtain their uncontested divorces. These forms are not readily understandable by laypeople, and sometimes even trained attorneys who are not familiar with them have a difficult time filling them out. Many times, litigants walked through the door and said something along the lines of “I have a silly question,” but their questions were in actuality not silly at all. Most of the unrepresented litigants’ questions stemmed from their not knowing which forms they needed to file, and if they did know, they often did not understand how to fill out these forms. It turned out that most of the questions the litigants asked were not questions regarding legal advice but were questions requesting legal information.
The litigants were, for the most part, pleasant and polite, especially when we explained to them that we were law students who were volunteering to help them with any questions regarding forms and legal information. Many of these self-represented litigants came with bags full of documents, which we would help them organize and put in the correct order. In addition to addressing how to fill out and file the uncontested divorce forms, we sometimes explained what it meant when a litigant was required to “serve” the other party with legal documents.
Sometimes litigants would walk through the door and they were quiet and sad. Other times they walked through the door yelling about how they made an error on a form. In several instances, a judge referred a litigant to the Navigators with a specific notation in the file as to what the individual needed assistance with, and it was our job to help them with that particular task. Whatever the situation, the Navigators were able to communicate with and assist the litigants in accordance with their individual needs.
As Navigators, we were also permitted to observe court proceedings and settlement conferences. After the proceedings, Judge Goodstein would generously spend time with us and answer any questions that we had about what we had seen. Many of the court proceedings and settlement conferences that we observed involved some of the same issues that we learned about in our Family Law With Skills class, such as spousal support, changed circumstances in child custody cases, and distribution of property.
The foundation of knowledge built in the Family Law With Skills class was incredibly helpful in understanding what was going on in the various court proceedings that we observed as participants in the Navigator Program. Seeing how the issues played out in real-life court proceedings added another dimension to what we had learned in class, and this courtroom exposure was extremely valuable as a learning tool.