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 homelessness.
“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 United States.
“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.