NEW YORK - Civil Courts are the last place in New York most people would look for evidence of the negative impact of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
But New York's Civil Courts are finding themselves in the thick of things, swamped with cases, 15,000 of foreclosures in Brooklyn alone, and all centered on a single hard fact of life: people's inability to meet their financial responsibilities.
That is true whether it is the State Supreme Court system, the lower civil courts or housing judicial panels in the five counties that make up the city – Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Banks, mortgage finance companies, landlords and others are turning increasingly to the courts for redress when homeowners can't pay their mortgages, when tenants fall far behind in their rents and owners want to get them out. Cases are also being brought by credit card companies after card holders run up high bills but can't even meet the minimum monthly payment.
"The economic situation is reflected in the courts, the cases with which we have to deal," said Charles Small, Chief Clerk for civil matters in the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. "Most of these cases begin with lenders, not so much the borrowers or tenants. Then there are the landlord tenant disputes.
"Next are issues involving people who have lost their jobs and simply can't pay the mortgage. It's a tough time for people in minority and immigrant communities and we see it in our courts every day. People in the Caribbean immigrant community who are pursuing the American dream of homeownership are really feeling it."
With unemployment in Black and Hispanic communities hovering between 13 to 15 percent, Small and other court officials are reporting a deluge of foreclosure cases, applications for evictions, judgments for unpaid credit card debts and efforts by tenants to force their landlords to provide heat, make repairs or otherwise ensure their properties are in livable condition.
In Brooklyn alone, there are about 15,000 foreclosure cases winding their way through the Supreme Court system and the arbitration process designed to help keep some people in their homes, according to Small.
"These are tough times and we see it in the cases for foreclosures, unpaid debt and landlords who have not been paid the rents due to them and the tenants who are fighting evictions," said a court official in the Bronx. "Minorities are the hardest hit because they are feeling the brunt of the unemployment situation."
In essence, the jobless and the working poor are being hit with a triple whammy: short on cash; the stress of being unable to support themselves and their families; and now handling the court system, which can be a daunting experience.
"When you lose your job, almost everything would go through the window – medical benefits; you can't pay your mortgage or rent; your children can't attend good private schools that would give them a good education because you can't pay the tuition," said the Chief Clerk, who heads a staff of about 600. "All of these things have a rippling effect.
"With no money coming in, you are unable to pay your credit card debt and the companies subsequently seek to enter judgment, because they can't collect the money owed to them; you can find yourself in housing court or can end up in the Supreme Court with a foreclosure.
"People are coming to court to have judgments vacated and most of those cases are in the lower court – the civil court. Because of the bad state of the economy, people ran up high credit card debt and the banks seek judgments when they can't pay. It's far from being a comfortable situation to be in," said the Chief Clerk.
And that puts Small and this staff at the center of the pain because "we have to ensure that the courts are functioning efficiently."
But herein lies the rub for people from the Caribbean. They aren't considered litigious and are unfamiliar with the courts.
"Immigrants from the Caribbean don't know the court system very well, particularly on the civil side," Small said.
"Navigating the system can be difficult because there is such a wide body of law and there are so many rules and statutes which can make it very complicated for a lay person to navigate it."
As if that wasn't bad enough, far too many of the unemployed and the working poor can't afford an attorney to put their case before a judge and therefore don't have the representation they need, Small explained.