NYC Administrative Justice Coordinator
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Initiatives: Best Practice Guidelines for Self-Represented Parties


Introduction

New York City’s administrative tribunals hear a wide range of cases involving violations of local laws and regulations. Hearings may result in monetary fines or penalties, revocation or forfeiture of licenses or permits, or other significant consequences for the parties who appear before these tribunals. The mission of New York City administrative tribunals is to assure a full and fair opportunity to be heard for all parties. This includes ensuring that all parties understand what is required of them so that they may represent themselves effectively when offering testimony and other evidence and presenting relevant arguments and defenses.

The New York City administrative tribunals are structured to allow parties to represent themselves rather than bear the burden of hiring attorneys or other representatives. Many self-represented parties must overcome language and cultural barriers to effectively represent themselves. Self-represented parties are often small business and property owners. Because of the nature of their businesses, many must navigate several City agencies to operate. The rules that govern these agencies vary significantly, as do the rules that govern the tribunals that hear cases brought by these agencies. There are differences in requirements for service of process and discovery. Some tribunals allow for alternative dispute resolution, such as settlement and arbitration, some do not. Some tribunals require appearance in person, some allow for appearance on submission. The need to develop best practices to assist self-represented parties in understanding these differences is crucial to assuring access to justice for them, as well as for all parties who appear before New York City tribunals. A system that fails to respect the needs of self-represented parties and the limitations on their time and resources is inefficient and costly for everyone. The implementation of best practices can help the tribunals operate more effectively with the available resources and staff.

The following are recommendations for best practices for assisting self-represented parties. Because the individual tribunals operate differently from one another, the recommendations for best practices cover a broad range of activities, some of which may not be feasible or appropriate for all tribunals. Some recommendations can be easily implemented; others may require long-range planning and additional resources. The development of best practices for assisting the self-represented party benefits everyone and bolsters the public’s trust and confidence in the ability of the New York City tribunals to ensure fair and impartial adjudication of the cases that come before them.

1. Tribunal Information and Public Materials

Self-represented parties have the best chance of obtaining helpful information on the hearing process and requirements before a hearing if clear information is made available in several formats.

  • Information will be most helpful if it may be accessed in a variety of settings, including:
    • Web sites.
    • Printed Material.
    • In person.
    • On the phone.

  • A tribunal Web site is most effective if it:
    • Is easy to navigate and formatted in a readable font.
    • Provides information and instructions on the full hearing process in plain language.
    • Provides a number to call for further information.

  • Additional technological options that may be helpful include
    • Providing documents in a printable format, and an electronic filing option for forms and financial transactions.
    • Using online videos or PowerPoint presentations to illustrate each stage of the hearing process, possibly including the use of multiple languages and/or links to other legal resources.

  • Printed information and forms are most effective if they:
    • Are available at all tribunal locations in the five boroughs.
    • Are written in plain language and a readable font.
    • Include all essential information available on the Web site, including but not limited to instructions on how to file required paperwork, what to expect throughout the hearing process, and what happens after a decision has been issued.
    • Are available in several common languages.

  • A notice of hearing will be most helpful if it includes the following information:
    • Tribunal Web site address.
    • Information on individual tribunal proceedings.
    • Information on the issuing agency.
    • A help-desk number for the tribunal.

  • Information provided in person or over the phone will be most clear if:
    • It is given using plain language, and avoids the use of legal terms or other jargon.
    • It is given by a person familiar with tribunal procedures.
    • The information request has been directed to the appropriate agency.

  • Specific information that may be helpful to self-represented parties includes:
    • Clear, chronological instructions on any submissions that must be made.
    • Information on any pre-hearing practices, such as discovery, motion practice, mediation, and settlement conferencing.
    • Information on what they may expect at a hearing, including who may participate and examples of evidence that may be used.
    • Instructions explaining how to file an administrative appeal and the further option of filing a proceeding pursuant to Article 78 of the CPLR.

2. Training for Judges and Hearing Officers

Judges and hearing officers should be trained to follow and implement the provisions in the Rules of Conduct, especially those in 103(A)(8):

  • Judges and hearing officers should be trained with regard to plain language writing and speaking.
  • Judges and hearing officers should be made aware of whatever their tribunal has done to implement other best practices discussed in this document, and be trained on how to make use of those resources involving self-represented parties.

[Note: This Best Practices document generally addresses the need for ALJ training. This document does not provide guidance for specific judicial practices.]

3. Training for Non-Judicial Staff

Self-represented parties may benefit if tribunal staff receives training practices developed with the needs of self-represented parties in mind. Such training may include:

  • General training on working with self-represented parties.
  • Tribunal-specific training on assistance and resources available to self-represented
    parties.
  • A description of the role each staff member or category of staff members will play in the general plan.

4. Ongoing Needs Assessment

Evaluation of tribunal needs and assessment of current practices may help to ensure continuing improvement of services for self-represented parties.

Evaluation may include:

  • Periodic surveys of self-represented parties using standardized criteria and/or opportunities for them to comment.
  • Development of effective data collection and recording techniques in connection with the surveys or comments.
  • Meaningful evaluation of data gathered from user surveys.
  • Processes to ensure survey results lead to recommendations and action.
  • Analysis of case records to determine whether plain language is being used in all interactions with parties, including oral communication and decision writing.
  • Use of results of analysis to identify areas in which judicial training is needed.
  • Sharing of information among tribunals.

5. User-Friendly Tribunal Space

A user-friendly waiting area with appropriate information available may be particularly helpful to self-represented parties.

Aspects of a user-friendly tribunal space may include:

  • Clear signs indicating where the tribunal is located.
  • Clearly marked check-in, information, and payment areas, where appropriate.
  • Readily available informational documents and tribunal forms.
  • Computers available for public use in the waiting area.
  • Development (and clear notification) of protocols to ensure that respondents who need to use restrooms, cell phones, etc., while waiting for their hearings are able to do so without risking missing their hearings.
  • Information about approximate waiting times.

6. Intra-City Communication

Tribunal staff should be able to provide self-represented parties with contact information for relevant City offices:

  • Familiarize tribunal staff with key City contacts.
  • Provide parties with assistance in identifying the appropriate City contact to meet their needs.