For 27 years, low-income Queens residents saddled with mysterious debt, pressured by abusive landlords or forced to navigate a confusing civil court system have had one reliable resource to which they could turn: the Queens Volunteer Lawyers’ Project.
The nonprofit QVLP was officially founded in 1991 in connection the Queens County Bar Association and continues to provide free legal services to low-income Queens residents who face serious civil legal issues like evictions foreclosure, divorce, consumer debt and bankruptcy.
The organization reflects the QCBA’s mission to serve low-income Queens residents, said attorney Paul Kerson, the editor of the QCBA’s Bar Bulletin. It is one of the reasons why Kerson told the Queens Daily Eagle that the bar association “the most important organization in society.”
“This is where the standards for justice are made,” Kerson said. “The bar association is the organization that strives to promote high standards throughout society.”
Kerson said the QVLP and its executive director Mark Weliky exemplify those standards.
“Mark is the physical embodiment of the Bar Association’s commitment to serving the poor,” he said. “The people active in the Bar Association are wonderful people to be associated with. They reflect Queens County, the most diverse county in the country.”
Every year, the Queens Volunteer Law Project connects with 5,000 Queens residents, a capacity that would not be possible without Weliky’s work.
Weliky became the QVLP executive director in 2001, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and has remained at the helm of the organization since he took over from founder Ivan Werner.
Prior to taking over the organization, Weliky worked for the New York Telephone Company — he even attended night school to earn his law degree while working there as technician. After retiring from the company, which by that time had become Verizon, Weliky decided to apply his administrative skills to public interest law.
Over the past 17 years, the organization has expanded to include six staff attorneys, several interns and scores of pro bono attorneys. The QVLP also builds relationships with students local law schools like St. John’s University, Touro College and the City University of New York School of Law and provides valuable experience to undergraduate interns who consider pursuing a legal career.
The QVLP’s stable of attorneys and attorneys-to-be tackle issues that could ruin a low-income person’s tenuous standard of living or even propel them into homelessness.
In particular, Weliky said, the QVLP has focused on consumer debt through its free weekly Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office clinic, which it has operated for more than ten years. The CLARO clinic opens at 1:30 pm every Friday.
Debt collection agencies often target low-income residents — even individuals who never accrued debt in the first place — and engage in shady practices to advance their case against supposed debtors.
“If a person’s name is Jose Lopez, the third-party debt buyer doesn’t care what Jose Lopez they try to get the debt from as long as they get it,” Weliky said. “People are sued for debts that aren’t even theirs or the debt is so old that it legally isn’t collectible in court.
“The bottom line is a lot of people get judgements against them for cases they had never been legally served on and sometimes were never involved in,” he continued.
In one example, a senior citizen named Maria visited the CLARO clinic after she received what appeared to be a legal document at her home address. The document informed Maria that a company she had never heard of was suing her for thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
Maria’s fixed income would never enable her to pay off the debt and she did not know what to do.
Though she was confused and scared, Maria nevertheless responded to the lawsuit and visited Queens Civil Court, where she noticed a poster for the CLARO Consumer Debt Clinic. When she visited the CLARO clinic she received free assistance from a QVLP attorney.
The attorney discovered that the debt Maria allegedly owed was related to an account with Citibank. But Maria never had an account with Citibank — the debt collector was suing the wrong person. A judge eventually dismissed the case.
“CLARO was like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Maria later told Weliky.
The CLARO clinic has helped hundreds of Queens residents like Maria get their debt dismissed, discontinued or settled for a far lower amount than they were sued for. Weliky estimated that 85 to 90 percent of CLARO clients have a favorable outcome to their case.
The QVLP also serves the lawyers who volunteer to assist low-income clients by sponsoring Continuing Legal Education classes and seminars. Lawyers can attend the sessions for free if they agree to take on a specific amount of work, like two eviction cases, through the QVLP.
The combination of CLEs and pro bono work often helps attorneys knock off half of their required hours, Weliky said.
Ultimately, the QVLP reflects the justice-oriented outlook of the Queens County Bar Association, where it is hosted, said QCBA president Hilary Gingold in an interview with the Queens Daily Eagle last month.
“We didn’t always have the term pro bono,” Gingold said. “We volunteer to give back and to do good work for others.”