By: Martin Frankel, Carroll Seron, Gregg Van Ryzin and Jean Frankel. Published by:Law & Society Review. Published in January 2001.
35 Law & Soc’y Rev. 419
The article reports on a randomized experiment studying what impact a program providing legal representation to low-income tenants had on eviction proceedings. The experiment found that tenants with representation from the program did significantly better than tenants that did not have representation. The experiment also found that representation did not significantly impair the court system’s efficiency.
The Legal Aid Society Community Law Offices in the Society’s Volunteer Division (referred to here as the CLO) is a project that enlists the services of pro bono attorneys from New York law firms to support low-income tenants. The CLO staff train the volunteer attorneys in basic housing law and assist them in developing a plan of action for each case. The program focuses on cases that may lead to eviction and where the program believes representation will be most useful.
The CLO conducted an experiment to answer two empirical questions asked as a condition for funding: Does the provision for legal counsel affect outcomes for low-income tenants in Housing Court, including final judgment, warrants of eviction, and stipulations requiring rent abatement or repairs to the property? Does the provision of legal counsel for low-income tenants produce delays and other inefficiencies for the Court, including a lengthening of the average time required by the Court to dispose of a case and an increase in the number of motions filed?
The experiment, a simple randomized study with a post-test only, had a treatment group of legal aid-eligible tenants receiving legal counsel and a control group that did not. Participants in the experiment were recruited from tenants waiting in line at the Manhattan Housing Court, all responding to non-payment of rent petitions. Individuals that indicated that they were interested in representation and met the economic criteria were invited to meet with an attorney. The CLO attorney confirmed that the client faced eviction and decided whether the client would receive representation from an attorney, advice from an attorney, or assistance from a paralegal.
Before the client received any assistance, a research assistant would provide the intake attorney with a numbered envelope with instructions assigning the client to either the “treatment” or “control” group. If the client was placed in the “treatment” group, the intake attorney assigned the case to a volunteer attorney. If the client was placed in the “control” group, the intake attorney informed them it was not possible to provide legal representation and returned the client to their original place in line. 134 clients in the treatment group and 134 clients in the control group were selected for study. Not all clients in the treatment group needed or received in-court representation.
Outcome Data and Measures
The study focused on five variables to assess the impact the program had on substantive legal outcomes: Whether the tenant defaulted or failed to appear in court; Whether a judgment was made for or against a tenant; Whether a warrant for eviction was ordered; Whether a stipulation requiring repairs was entered; and Whether a stipulation requiring rent abatement was entered. Four variables were also considered to assess the impact the program had on efficiency: The number of court appearances the case required; The number of days required to dispose of the case, from initial answer to final disposition; The number of motions filed in the case; and The number of post-judgment motions filed.
On all five measures of substantive impact, the treatment group experienced superior outcomes than the control group. Of particular note, 28% of the control cases defaulted or failed to appear in court compared to 16% of the treatment cases. Judgments were issued against 52% of the control cases compared to 32% issued against treatment cases. Similar differences favored the treatment group regarding warrants for eviction and the stipulation for rent abatement and repairs percentages.
The study also found that lawyers did not create inefficiencies in the court system. Treatment cases did spend more time on the docket but did not generate significantly more court appearances or motions. Treatment cases were also 16% less likely to have post-judgment motions filed, which are particularly burdensome as they require the Court to reopen cases that were believed to have been resolved.