Without representation by counsel, many vulnerable
tenants forfeit important rights, lose possession of homes they could have
retained, and forego substantial financial benefits -- according to a study released
today by the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF). Funded by The Boston
Foundation, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, and the BBF, this study, "The
Importance of Representation in Eviction Cases and Homelessness
Prevention," comes as a follow-up to Gideon's New
Trumpet, a 2008 Boston Bar Association
(BBA) report examining the civil right to counsel in Massachusetts.
"We funded this study because we felt it was important to take a
good, hard look at the practical impact of legal representation in an area where
losing a case means losing your home," said BBF President John Donovan. "What's
unique about the final product is that it measures the results of representation
in a segment of eviction cases involving low-income families using rigorous data
collection techniques and analysis."
According to Professor Russell Engler of New England Law|Boston, a member
of the Task Force and a nationally renowned expert on access to justice, the
target population for the study (those eligible for a free lawyer) was
developed only after getting input from Housing and District Court judges and
lawyers knowledgeable about eviction cases. The target population included
tenants facing eviction related to mental disabilities, criminal activity and
those with potentially meritorious cases jeopardized by extreme power imbalances
between the tenants and landlord. The study involved two different pilot
projects, one in the Quincy District Court, and one in the Northeast Housing
Court and found that representation made meaningful differences to preventing
eviction, saving tenants rent, and avoiding the social costs of
"Both pilot projects prove the importance of representation by counsel
for the most vulnerable tenants to avoid eviction and homelessness," said
Engler. "What's significant is that we were able to identify those types of
eviction cases in which nothing short of full legal representation could protect
the basic human needs at stake."
The study was conducted under the auspices of a BBA Task Force on Civil
Right to Counsel, co-chaired by Mary K. Ryan of Nutter McClennen & Fish and
Jayne B. Tyrrell, Director of the Massachusetts IOLTA Committee.
"This was a courageous initiative involving an issue that is of concern
on a national level and which implicates core issues of access to justice," said
BBA President Lisa C. Goodheart. "None of this would have happened without the
dedication and leadership of Mary Ryan and Jane Tyrrell."
Although civil legal aid reaches some indigent clients in eviction cases,
the shortage of available counsel for the poor, and the dramatic extent of unmet
civil legal needs have been widely documented. Similarly, the issue of expanding
the civil right to counsel has been the subject of conversations throughout the
"The study released today is a major breakthrough for Massachusetts, and
should provide a model for other states looking at the issue of civil right to
counsel," said Mary Ryan.