By J.D. Smeallie, President, Boston
In March of this year, the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF)
released a groundbreaking study
assessing the practical impact of legal
representation in eviction cases. The data indicated that without representation
by counsel, many vulnerable tenants forfeit important rights, often lose
possession of homes they could have retained, and sometimes forego substantial
financial benefits. Conducted under the auspices of a Boston Bar Association
(BBA) Task Force on Expanding Civil Right to Counsel, the study involved two
different pilot projects, one in the Quincy District Court, and one in the
Northeast Housing Court.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil
Legal Services in New York found that "the unmet need for civil legal assistance
in New York State is profoundly impacting vulnerable New Yorkers and costing
taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing homelessness, failing to prevent
domestic violence, and increasing poverty."
This is not a new problem. In 1999, the BBA's Real Estate
Section partnered with the Volunteer Lawyers
Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP), Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the WilmerHale Legal Services
Center, and the Boston
Housing Court (BHC) to establish a Lawyer
for the Day program. The goal was to prevent evictions resulting in
homelessness. At the request of the BHC, the program has two different legal
information tables, one for unrepresented tenants, and another for unrepresented
landlords. The Herbert W.
of the BBF helps support the operations of this
During the 13 year history of the Lawyer for the Day program at the BHC,
1,200 volunteers have donated their time to assist more than 14,732 individuals.
In just the past year alone, 443 volunteers helped 991 tenants and 181
About 95 per cent of tenants at the BHC are
unrepresented. According to Chris Saccardi, a solo practitioner from Somerville and a frequent volunteer,
tenants, the bulk of whom are low-income and frequently minorities, are usually
opposed by a landlord represented by counsel. The issue before the court is
typically whether the tenant can stay in his or her home. Were it not for the
Lawyer for the Day program, the imbalance in power would be profound.
Chris reports that it is not uncommon to see families with young children,
families with elderly parents sharing their home, as well as elderly people
living alone -- all of whom are facing eviction. But he also sees tenants
who have slipped below middle class status because of job loss or illness.
For tenants living in subsidized housing or Boston Housing
Authority developments, the stakes can be especially high. Take for example a
grandmother raising grandchildren. Should one of those kids get in trouble, the
entire family can face eviction. Should they be evicted "for cause," the impact can
be devastating -- with the family being required to split up, move in with
relatives, or live on the street. Collateral consequences may follow.
GBLS is well-known for having housing attorneys second to none. Yet the
demand for their services by poor people overwhelms the supply.
The BHC, which hears anywhere between 200 and 225 evictions weekly,
considers the Lawyer for the Day program a godsend. Thanks to Lawyer for the Day
volunteers, some 80 per cent of the cases can be resolved successfully through
mediation provided by BHC staff -- without a judge having to get involved.
"The program has been successful beyond our wildest dreams," says Robert
Lewis, Chief Clerk Magistrate of the BMC.
A word about unrepresented landlords. . . they are frequently immigrants
with limited English proficiency who depend on the rent to pay mortgages on
owner occupied two or three family homes. Missed rental payments can put them at
risk of foreclosure. Indeed, there are situations where landlord owners of
small multi-family homes can be in a tighter financial situation than their
Often times this population of landlords need to be advised about what
steps they must take to bring their property to the minimum state sanitary code,
and assisted in determining the difference between a tenant complaint and what
the law requires them to do.
This month, the Lawyer for the Day program will expand its services
to low income landlords, starting with one Monday a month dedicated specifically
to those cases. As Joanna Allison of the VLP points out, the mistakes
that unrepresented landlords make on a procedural basis make it impossible for
them to prevail in their cases -- resulting in wasted filing fees for people who can
least afford them and inefficiency for a busy court.
The Lawyer for the Day program is a model for legal services organizations
to leverage the contributions of committed volunteers to preserve housing
for a very vulnerable population and to conserve precious judicial resources. If we consider
the fact that the cost of placing a family in a shelter is on average three
times higher than the average government subsidy for families in Massachusetts,
the program is also saving taxpayers money.
The program also illustrates the concept that lawyers can do well by
doing good. Mary K.Y. Lee, a lawyer whose paid work involves both immigration
and landlord/tenant matters, is another dedicated volunteer. She says that were
it not for her volunteering for Lawyer for the Day at the BHA, she might not
have gotten litigation experience so early in her career, and credits the
program with helping her become "a better person and a better lawyer."
We should all applaud all those involved for making the Lawyer for the Day program a
continued success. That being said, we still confront the painful reality of
overburdened courts and underrepresented litigants.
As the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal
Services in New York concluded, "private lawyers cannot fill the gap in services
as the sheer numbers of needy and unrepresented litigants overwhelm the capacity of volunteer lawyers." In response to that Task
Force's recommendations, the New York Legislature dramatically increased legal aid funding to provide
for counsel in eviction and other cases involving basic human
So while I say “keep up the good work” to all our
volunteers, I look forward to the BBA expanding beyond its
civil right to counsel study and pursuing new paths to assuring counsel to all those
involved in cases involving basic human needs such as housing. Stay tuned.
*This article will appear in the Fall 2012 issue of the Boston Bar