Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie (D – Ward 5), Chairperson of the Committee on the Judiciary, introduced legislation to provide free legal counsel to low-income District residents in certain housing law cases. The bill was co-introduced by Councilmembers Bonds, Evans and Silverman.
The “Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016” would authorize the DC Bar Foundation (“DCBF”) to adopt policies and procedures, issue requests for proposals, and make grants to designated legal services providers as part of a new series of legal counsel projects. The providers would represent low-income tenants at or below 200% of the federal poverty line facing eviction, housing code violations, termination from a rental housing subsidy program, increases in rent controlled units, and homeless shelter proceedings.
“The overwhelming majority of low-income tenants in the District of Columbia go to court without an attorney” McDuffie said. “This puts them at a severe disadvantage in comparison with well-represented property owners. Without attorneys, tenants can miss important deadlines, misunderstand documents and procedures, and make harmful decisions without being fully informed of their rights, and in some instances lose the case even when the eviction being sought is without merit. A growing number of states are implementing Civil Gideon legislation, recognizing that legal representation in non-criminal, or civil, cases is one of the most significant legal reforms of our time,” he added.
McDuffie continued, “By creating civil right to counsel projects designed to help those District residents most unable to afford attorneys, we will be improving their housing conditions and keeping them in their homes. This will, in turn, stem the loss of affordable housing in the city and ensure stable, safe, and accessible housing for all District residents. Ultimately, the goal is to move the District toward the establishment of a full right to counsel in all civil cases”, said McDuffie.
Analysis of the need for legal counsel in the District of Columbia shows a stark disparity between those who have counsel and those who do not:
- Approximately 97% of defendants appearing in Landlord/Tenant Court are pro se.
- Almost 45% of formal probate matters, 98% of small estate matters, and 60% of trust matters before the Probate Division of D.C. Superior Court involve pro se plaintiffs;
- 98% of both petitioners and respondents in the Domestic Violence Unit of the D.C. Superior Court proceed pro se; and
- 77% of plaintiffs in divorce, custody, and miscellaneous cases in Family Court are pro se.
Numerous studies show that tenants represented by counsel default less often, negotiate better settlements, and win more often at trial. The New York City Office of Civil Justice recently released a report showing that a significant rise in the numbers of low-income tenants who have been able to gain access to city-funded counsel has led to a 24% decline in evictions by city marshals over the last two years. “The decline in evictions noted in this report underscores why the legislation introduced by Councilmember McDuffie is so important,” said Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation. “These projects will allow us to see how legal assistance can improve substantive outcomes for tenants as we move toward expanding legal counsel in other areas,” he added.
Under the legislation, DCBF would select projects proposed by legal services providers. “An attorney can mean the difference between a roof over a tenant’s head and homelessness,” said Kirra Jarratt, DCBF Executive Director. “Expanding access to counsel through these projects shows the District of Columbia’s continued commitment to investing in justice. We applaud Councilmember McDuffie for joining the movement for a civil right to counsel,” she added.
The bill also requires the DCBF to collaborate with key government entities in developing an annual plan for the provision of legal services. “While an increase in resources will improve the legal landscape for low-income tenants, we also want to make sure that we collaborate in a meaningful way to provide high quality services that meet the needs of the community, and this bill does just that,” said Peter Edelman, Chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission.
Lastly, the bill requires data collection and reporting on the profiles of tenants served, legal outcomes achieved, and recommended future improvements. “There must be mechanisms in place to evaluate who is being helped. By capturing this information, we can understand what needs continue to exist and how best to address them,” said Eric Angel, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society for the District of Columbia, the District’s oldest and largest general civil legal services program. “We have already seen impressive initial results in the pilot project we are working on, in collaboration with Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, and various major law firms. I have no doubt that those results will be magnified if this bill is enacted.”
The legislation builds on the experiences of a number of other jurisdictions considering legal representation in various areas of law, including new programs in California, Massachusetts, and New York. John Pollock, Coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, said
“This effort lays the groundwork for a future right to counsel in housing cases and represents a significant commitment to expanding access to justice. We applaud the District for recognizing the importance of counsel in civil cases and joining a growing number of states in moving meaningfully towards that direction.”
List of Supporting Organizations:
- Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia
- Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
- Neighborhood Legal Services Program
- Children’s Law Center
The bill was referred to the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary, which will hold a hearing on the bill on October 19. Witnesses interested in testifying can contact the Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.