Published by: Boston Bar Association. Published in March 2012.
In 2006, the American Bar Association passed a resolution supporting the right to counsel in civil “adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake.” Polls show that a majority of Americans believe there is a right to counsel in such matters, but there is not.
Since September 2007, a broad-based Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel (“Task Force”) convened by the Boston Bar Association (“BBA”) has examined the question of how to establish a right to counsel for situations in which a family or an individual faces the risk of a loss of shelter, sustenance, or other basic human needs. Focusing on the core areas of housing, family, juvenile, and immigration law, the Task Force recommended pilot projects to learn more about the mechanisms for providing counsel, the effect of creating a right to counsel, the costs involved, and the potential cost savings to the Commonwealth.
Funding was obtained for two pilot projects involving eviction cases. This report describes the goals and structure of the housing pilot projects, and presents the conclusions that flow from them. Consistent with the goal of understanding the situations in which assistance short of full representation would be unable to preserve a basic need or right, the “targeted representation model” implemented in the pilot projects identified categories of eviction cases in which, in the judgment of experienced housing judges and lawyers, counsel was most needed and nothing short of full representation would be effective. In Massachusetts, the District Courts in each county hear approximately one-third of eviction cases, while five specialized Housing Courts hear two-thirds of such cases. In conjunction with the courts, the Task Force operated the projects in the Quincy District Court (“Quincy”) and the Northeast Housing Court (“Northeast”) in Lawrence and Lynn, MA, with intake occurring for more than a year beginning in the spring of 2009.
Both pilot projects provided free legal representation to specific categories of low-income tenants in cases in which representation was expected to make the most difference in terms of case outcomes. Both projects were also designed as randomized studies with control groups in order to produce statistically valid data. The Task Force supplemented the statistical analysis with other evaluation tools, including follow-up interviews with clients, project attorneys, court clerks, judges, and homeless shelter providers, to better understand the impact of representationon outcomes and on the tenants’ lives.
Both pilot projects prevented evictions, protected the rights of tenants, and maintained shelter in a high rate of cases. In Quincy, two-thirds of the tenants who received full representation were able to stay in their homes, compared with one-third of those who lacked representation. Even for those represented tenants who moved, they were better able to manage their exit on their own timetable and their own terms. Full representation therefore allowed more than two-thirds of the tenants in this pilot to avoid the destabilizing consequences of eviction, including potential homelessness. Represented tenants also received almost five times the financial benefit (e.g., damages, cancellation of past due rent) as those without full representation.