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Closing Housing Justice Gap Needs More Than Lawyers

By Andrew Strickler | April 14, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

A daunting justice gap facing low-income people threatened with home evictions demands a “wrap around” response by volunteer lawyers backed by social services and other kinds of assistance, pro bono advocates said Tuesday.

Speaking to hundreds of legal aid leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., a group of lawyers and judges described how they've seen some modest successes in helping people dodge a life-changing loss of a home by marshalling support from a range of people within and outside the legal community.

At the same time, panelists participating in the Legal Services Corp.’s Forum on Increasing Access to Justice described a massive disparity between the number of people facing evictions or home foreclosures across the U.S. who have legal help and those without, and the life-altering consequences they face if they don’t know how to respond in court.

Dawn Caldart, who directs the pro bono program at Quarles & Brady LLP, said a successful eviction defense program must look beyond getting volunteer lawyers into housing court and focus on sealing partnerships with other entities ready to offer financial, medical and housing assistance to clients.

“You really need to look at it as a wrap-around effort,” Caldart said. “Maybe you can stop an eviction, but maybe you’re just putting a band-aid on it. Maybe [the pro bono client] needs rent assistance and other things, so having those partners in place is important.”

The forum, held at Georgetown University Law Center, drew about 375 members of the legal aid and pro bono community.

The LSC, the largest funder of legal aid services in the U.S., is amid its annual push for federal funding. Among scores of project leaders and LSC grantees were a handful of state Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and BigLaw pro bono directors.

A number of representatives of the American Bar Association also attended, with current ABA President Robert Carlson of Corette Black Carlson & Mickelson PC in Montana giving the closing remarks.

Like Caldart and others, Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins of the Tennessee Supreme Court described a gaping justice gap in the housing and eviction arena, with just 90 LSC-supported attorneys in the state and as many as 1.5 million Tennesseans needing legal representation in eviction and foreclosure cases

But Judge Bivins voiced optimism that growing bipartisan support for justice reform generally would bolster more “non-traditional” housing and eviction initiatives, and draw more attention to related areas of need.

That includes an increasing number of people in legal disputes over real estate installment plan contracts, according to Judge Bivins. Such arrangements can offer a way for individuals strapped for cash or financing to buy property by giving an owner a down payment and then paying in installments, plus interest. The deals also come with risks for buyers — including threats to their occupancy rights— if they miss payments.

Judge Bivins also described the particular moral and ethical quandary of judges faced with unsophisticated pro se residents on one side, and landlords represented by experienced, well-prepared lawyers on the other.

During his time as a trial court judge, “I would try to guide them in the right direction but often times, they don’t bring any paperwork and you end up having to rule the other way based on what the evidence has shown you,” Judge Bivins said.

“Our citizens end up being evicted because they don’t know their legal rights,” he said.

The panel moderator, former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman, also pressed the speakers about the possibility that more jurisdictions nationally would follow New York City’s lead and pass right-to-counsel laws for low-income people facing eviction proceedings.

Most offered at least some hope the idea would spread in the long-term. Since New York City passed the so-called “civil Gideon” housing court bill in 2017, similar measures have gotten traction in a number of other cities, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Newark, New Jersey.

However, fighting evictions is just one facet of ensuring justice in the context of housing disputes.

Joanna Allison, who leads the Volunteer Lawyers Project at the Boston Bar Association, noted that her housing-focused pro bono program wasn’t allowed into city courts until they agreed to also represent low-income landlords trying to evict non-paying tenants.

“I’ll be the bad guy and say we also need to look at that population,” she said.

--Editing by Kelly Duncan.

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