By David Brand
As the Queens’ population ages, more and more senior citizens are targeted by schemes designed to separate them from their money, assets and homes.
For more than 20 years, the St. John’s University School of Law has tackled the persistent fraud affecting low-income seniors through the Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic, an in-house, one-semester civil litigation and advocacy clinic directed by Prof. Ann L. Goldweber.
Goldweber, who also serves as director of clinic education at SJU Law, said the clinic represents low-income Queens seniors who experience issues such as foreclosure, contractor fraud, debt collection, predatory lending and deed theft — which recently occurred in Jamaica when a man allegedly tricked his 101-year-old neighbor into signing over the deed to his house.
Though most students who participate in the clinic do not go on to pursue public interest law, their time at the clinic fosters a better understanding of the legal system and the experience of low-income residents, Goldweber said.
“The way I look at it, being exposed to this and seeing how the justice system in this country works are both valuable experiences,” Goldweber said.
Some, however, ultimately do decide to seek careers in public interest law.
“My experience in the clinic influenced my decision to become a public interest attorney after graduation,” one student said in a testimonial included on the clinic’s website. “While participating in the clinic, I became keenly aware of the vital need for legal services for the indigent members of our society.”
The majority of students participate in at least one of ten clinics during their time at St. John’s, Goldweber said. The experience often inspires those who do not go into public interest law to seek more pro bono opportunities after graduating, she said.
Legal support for seniors is a crucial concern in Queens, where the older adult population continues to rise.
Since 2010, the percentage of Queens residents aged 65 years or older has increased by an estimated 2.2 percent while the overall population has increased by nearly 140,000 people, according to U.S. Census estimates.
In 2010, there were 286,146 Queens residents aged 65 or older, a total that accounted for 12.8 percent of the borough’s population. As of July 2017, the U.S. Census estimates that there were roughly 353,787 Queens residents over 65, or 15 percent of the population.
Goldweber has spent her entire career in public interest law. She arrived at St. John’s in 1998 after representing low-income residents of rural communities outside Madison, WI. She also worked on environmental enforcement in the New York Attorney General’s office for 13 years.
Since she started at St. John’s, the Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic has expanded, she said. At first, the clinic mostly handled cases involving predatory lending and subprime loans. The clinic then began assisting victims of foreclosure rescue scams and deed theft.
In the process, students have worked closely with the Queens District Attorney’s office, especially Senior Assistant DA Christine Burke, and SJU alum. Burke and other assistant district attorneys handle the criminal part of the case and the litigation clinic works on the civil side.
Clinic staff and students also work with the Queens Volunteer Lawyers Project Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office, Goldweber said. St. John’s law students also regularly volunteer with CLARO in addition to their work with the clinic, she said.
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Goldweber and Prof. Gina Calabrese, the clinic’s associate director, oversee 15 to 16 students per semester to comply with American Bar Association staff-to-student ratio guidelines, Goldweber said.
“The students are doing real legal work on real cases for real clients,” she said.
And that work is demanding. As its website states, the clinic requires a significant commitment from students.
Participants must devote at least 13 hours per week to their clinic cases and keep office hours four days a week. Students also spend time making court appearances, conducting library research and performing other clinic work.
“Students should carefully consider this in light of their other commitments and goals,” the clinic’s website states. “Students wishing to take the Clinic must possess a high degree of maturity and the willingness and ability to shoulder the substantial responsibilities of a practicing attorney.”