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Housing is a fundamental human right, yet the United States does not guarantee a right to counsel for individuals fighting to protect the roof over their heads. This means low-income tenants face a high risk of unfavorable outcomes in housing court, including wrongful evictions, simply because they are ill-equipped to defend themselves in eviction proceedings. In several jurisdictions, advocates are organizing to improve the status quo by securing a right to counsel in housing eviction cases. These efforts present unique opportunities for pro bono lawyers.
New York. In New York City, there are 230,000 eviction cases or other proceedings brought against tenants annually. Historically, less than one percent of tenants have counsel while more than 90 percent of landlords are represented. Following an initiative that brought a significant increase in annual funding for legal services for tenants, the percentage of represented tenants in eviction cases increased from one percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2016, and the eviction rate dropped by 24 percent from 2013 to 2015, according to the New York City Office of Civil Justice. This initiative served as a precursor, bolstering longtime efforts by a broad coalition in New York to advocate for right to counsel legislation.
On August 11, 2017, New York City passed a law providing that at the end of five years, all income-eligible tenants (residents whose income is 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less) will be guaranteed legal representation in eviction cases. The city is rolling out the right to counsel by zip code. Pro bono attorneys helped draft the law, advocate for its passage, and research legal questions for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, such as whether the city had authority to implement a right to counsel without infringing on the authority of the courts or the state.
San Francisco. In 2012, less than 10 percent of tenants in San Francisco were represented in eviction cases. That same year, the city passed its Right to Counsel in Civil Matters Ordinance, declaring San Francisco a “Right to Counsel City,” and authorizing a one-year Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program, implemented by the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) of the Bar Association of San Francisco, to train pro bono attorneys to provide full-scope representation for tenants in eviction cases. The Pilot Program, which ran from October 2012 to September 2013, increased the representation of indigent tenants in eviction cases and provided critical data to support a right to counsel by showing that tenants are less likely to be evicted when they receive full-scope representation in housing court. On June 5, 2018, the city passed a ballot initiative, creating a taxpayer-funded right to counsel for all tenants in eviction cases with no income-eligibility threshold, and giving the city one year to determine how to implement the measure, which would expand legal services for tenants. In addition, JDC’s Homeless Advocacy Project continues to offer pro bono volunteers opportunities to help clients fight eviction proceedings, among other services.
District of Columbia. According to the DC Bar Foundation, there are more than 30,000 eviction cases each year in Washington, D.C. and, historically, only 10 percent of tenants in those cases have representation compared to 90 percent of landlords. In 2015, a collaborative of law firms and legal services organizations created a Housing Right to Counsel Project, which trains pro bono attorneys to provide legal representation to tenants in eviction cases involving subsidized housing. A year later, the D.C. Council introduced a bill to establish right to counsel projects that would expand representation in eviction cases. In July 2017, the D.C. Council approved the bill and allocated $4.5 million to fund representation in civil cases involving fundamental human needs, including housing. In addition to staffing the Housing Right to Counsel Project, pro bono attorneys have played an important role, including representing indigent clients in housing matters through the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy and Justice Clinic, and providing same-day legal information to pro se parties at the Landlord Tenant Resource Center in D.C. Superior Court.
Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, approximately 24,000 evictions are filed annually, in which only eight percent of tenants are represented, compared to 81 percent of landlords, according to Community Legal Services (CLS). In June 2017, the Philadelphia City Council held a hearing on the right to counsel in housing, resulting in the mayor launching the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project in January 2018 and boosting funding for landlord-tenant reforms, including legal representation in housing court, to $850,000 in July 2018. CLS leads a team of legal services organizations in implementing the Project, including staffing the Landlord Tenant Help Center at the Philadelphia Municipal Court up to 40 hours a week, funding a court navigator to direct litigants through the court process, and staffing a tenant hotline, among other services. Pro bono attorneys conduct intakes and provide limited scope representation to tenants through the Lawyer for the Day program, and take case referrals from the Landlord Tenant Help Center through Philadelphia VIP. Pro bono attorneys also have helped to work on reforms to Philadelphia Municipal Court Procedures and to conduct research on other issues relating to the right to counsel.
Newark. In Essex County (which includes Newark, NJ) there are approximately 40,000 eviction cases annually, in which most landlords are represented, but 99 percent of tenants are unrepresented, according to the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest. In July 2018, the law firm McCarter & English* announced a partnership with the city of Newark creating a pro bono program to represent tenants in housing court. A month later, the City Council approved an ordinance to create a nonprofit to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction whose income is 200 percent of the federal poverty line or less, with a focus initially on seniors, the disabled, and undocumented residents, although the ordinance does not provide funding or details about the nonprofit. Through the McCarter & English program, to be run by a fellow, law firm attorneys will take on pro bono engagements while partnering with legal services organizations to represent low-income tenants in eviction proceedings.
According to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, “Having a lawyer can make the difference between keeping a home or losing it.” When people lose their homes, the adverse ripple effects on their health, education, employment, and the security of their families can be profound. Every individual and family who loses their housing results in social and economic costs for the community, including increased homelessness and use of public shelters and benefits.
The five cities spotlighted here are just some of the locations around the United States where the right to counsel movement is flourishing and where pro bono volunteers are providing critical research, advocacy, and, in some jurisdictions, direct legal representation to fill the gap. To learn more about right to counsel and pro bono, please visit:
- National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, which highlights right to counsel movements across the United States.
- Housing Matters (Pro Bono in Practice) webinar
Over 300 lawyers and staff from law firms and legal departments gathered on September 5 in Charlotte, North Carolina to inaugurate a pro bono project that takes a triage approach to delivering needed legal services to the community. The Charlotte Triage Mobilization is a collaborative undertaking of law firms and legal departments in partnership with Charlotte legal aid organizations to mobilize volunteers to help in three service areas identified as the most in need: housing eviction defense, expunction of criminal records, and health care enrollment. Volunteers spent an afternoon learning about the triage project and attending CLE trainings in one of the service areas as the first step to helping pro bono clients.
The genesis behind the Charlotte Triage Mobilization was a March 2018 roundtable of Charlotte general counsel convened by David Leitch, Global General Counsel of Bank of America** and Julie Janson, General Counsel of Duke Energy**. At the meeting, more than 20 chief legal officers learned about Richmond’s Triage Project, which created a system of coordinated case referrals by legal aid organizations to affiliated pre-trained pro bono lawyers for designated categories of cases. Subsequently, the Charlotte Triage Task Force was formed to study the feasibility of a similar triage pro bono effort in Charlotte. The Task Force reflected the collaborative nature of the project, comprising representatives from legal departments, law firms, and legal services organizations, including Bank of America, Duke Energy, Husqvarna, Wells Fargo, McGuire Woods*†, Moore & Allen†, Legal Aid of North Carolina – Charlotte, and Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.
The efforts of the Task Force culminated in the September kick-off event to unveil the triage project and train volunteers to help in one of the three core areas. In his opening remarks, Leitch explained: “Triage is about creating collectively a different approach to the service distribution of legal services than the market economy brings to bear. . . We are building a second ring of Legal Aid – one comprised of private lawyers in secondary practices.”
Vijay Bondada, Vice President and Chief Litigation Officer of Duke Energy, followed Leitch’s welcome to explain how each of the service areas are led by three “triage champions” comprised of legal departments and law firms partnered to take the lead in training and managing volunteers. Bondada commented on the impressive turnout for the event and urged volunteers to take the CLE training from the day and translate it into pro bono services for those in need. He reminded the audience that the “true win” comes when a client’s housing is preserved, a criminal record is expunged to remove barriers to employment, or an indigent client receives health care benefits. Charlotte’s mayor, Vi Lyles, expressed her gratitude for the leadership and vision behind the triage project and the many people in the room who saw the need for help and want to make a difference.
In his closing remarks, Jim Sandman, President of Legal Services Corporation, lauded the triage project as a “brilliant program,” describing it as a “standout” among pro bono programs he has seen across the country. He said it has three important elements for a successful pro bono program: collaboration among corporate departments, law firms, and legal services organizations that create a “force multiplier effect”; focus on three issues that have a fundamental impact on individuals and families – housing, health, and jobs – with legal issues that provide work for transactional and regulatory lawyers; and provision of training and expertise to volunteers. Sandman opined that the triage project can be a national model, replicable in different regions to serve the particular civil legal needs of specific communities.
The Health and Human Services Acting Secretary declared a public health emergency in 2017 to address the opioid epidemic, after opioids were responsible for the sharpest increase in drug overdose deaths that year. Between 1999 and 2016, a reported 350,000 deaths stemmed from an overdose involving opioids. A 2016 survey estimates 2.1 million Americans are addicted to opioids and a staggering 11 million are affected by the crisis.
As legal problems often go hand-in-hand with addiction, pro bono attorneys are well-situated to help combat the crisis and improve the lives of peoples and families affected. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration identifies health, home, purpose, and community as the four components to recovery from drug addiction. Attorneys can assist individuals to obtain housing and health care, ensure their children are cared for or arrange custody, address domestic violence situations, remove obstacles to employment, combat fraud, and engage in systemic reform efforts. To learn more, check out our blog this week, Combating the Opioid Crisis, for an in-depth look at the epidemic and a range of available pro bono opportunities and partnerships.
“I promise you there is a person sitting in a cell today whose life will be changed by someone sitting in this room,” said Brian Ferguson, a pro bono client of Covington & Burling*, during his remarks at PBI’s Annual Dinner on October 4. Ferguson served 11 years of a life sentence for a crime he did not commit.
Covington received PBI’s 2018 John H. Pickering Award at the annual event which celebrates and recognizes the tremendous pro bono efforts and accomplishments of law firms and legal departments. PBI also presented its 2018 CPBO Pro Bono Partner Awards to MassMutual’s Law Department in partnership with the Hampden County Bar Association Legal Clinic for their strategic collaboration to expand pro bono programs that improve access to justice for the underserved residents of Hampden County, Massachusetts and to United Airlines’** Legal Department in partnership with Seyfarth Shaw LLP*† and Cabrini Green Legal Aid for their project to help low-income individuals recover vehicles and other assets seized by the police.
In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we spoke to Annie Geraghty Helms of DLA Piper*† about the Rolling Meadows Help Desk, a program that assists domestic violence survivors in Chicago’s suburbs. With the expert training and support of LAF, an organization that provides free legal services in non-criminal matters to people living in poverty in metropolitan Chicago, lawyers from each of the partner organizations regularly staff four-hour shifts in the Between Friends office, helping individuals complete paperwork, explaining the court process, and ensuring that no survivor goes through the process of obtaining a protective order alone. Read the full Q&A here.