I have always seen the practice of law as one of the most significant means of participating in our unique American democracy. As lawyers, we are accustomed, by training and practice, to embracing an adversarial role while still advancing a principled position.
Still, many of us in the bar could not help but be deeply troubled by the implications of some of the rhetoric in this year’s election campaign upon our long-held principles of American jurisprudence, including respect for the rule of law, due process, equal rights, and access to justice. Like so many of you, I have been angered and saddened to hear comments, and learn of events, that disrespect individuals who identify as minorities, or come from diverse backgrounds, beliefs and cultures. Such conduct erodes our Constitutional democracy, resulting in divisiveness, fear, and anxiety, all of which are felt acutely not only by adults, but perhaps most disturbingly, by our children as well.
In this context, I wanted to reach out to my colleagues at the bar to let you know that I believe the work of the Boston Bar Association, and its mission, have rarely been more relevant.
The BBA has a strong record of rising above division, finding common ground, and inspiring diverse groups to overcome disagreement to advance access to justice and excellence in the practice of law. We are – and will continue to be – a solutions-oriented convener that welcomes all stakeholders to exchange ideas and build relationships. But we also bear a responsibility, to one another and in the service of our communities, to be ever watchful and vigilant in ensuring that individual and due process rights remain valued and protected as bedrock principles in the implementation of our laws.
I write to our members now, to assure you that the BBA stands ready, willing and able to answer any necessary call to action resulting from this climate of uncertainty and ever changing events.
Over the past week, we have heard many expressions of concern, – both from our members and from local organizations with whom we partner. But we have also experienced a true sense of inspiration by the commendable desire of those same members and organizations to become actively engaged. We recognize that as lawyers, we are at our best when we are dealing with well-defined issues and actual cases and controversies. I want to state — unequivocally — that we remain committed to our work on the following fronts:
- The BBA is committed to protection of due process rights for all, as enumerated in the United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, and our Massachusetts Constitution, with its Declaration of Rights. Yet it is not enough for us to remain watchful. We will be empowering others to do the same through “Know Your Rights” programs in our communities and schools.
- We must remain cognizant of deportation as a potential collateral consequence of involvement with the justice system. Just this week, the SJC heard arguments on a case regarding the so-called Annie Dookhan defendants, in which the BBA filed an amicus brief asking the Court to vacate all remaining convictions without prejudice. The risk that any of these individuals might face deportation proceedings on the basis of a conviction supported by tainted drug-lab evidence adds greatly to our argument for a “global remedy.”
Harassment, discrimination, and hate crimes:
- I share the concern of many of our members over the recent spike in acts of violence and intimidation against members of minority populations. Such actions must never be tolerated. We will continue to work with our partners at the six local affinity bar associations – and seek ways to engage with other, similar organizations – to defend individuals and groups that are under threat, and to educate people about their rights.
Access to justice:
- Our advocacy on behalf of access to justice for all residents will not waver. Join me on January 26th at Walk to the Hill as we once again make the case to the Governor and the Legislature, for a substantial increase in funding for civil legal aid, building on the BBA’s Investing in Justice task-force report. Providing all with access to justice is more important than ever.
- In addition, we are working with Attorney General Maura Healey and other legal services organizations to identify emerging legal needs in the community, particularly as they pertain to the increase in Hate Crimes and Immigration issues.
The BBA will continue to do everything we can to support the core values of meaningful access to justice and of diversity and inclusion that are at the heart of who we are as an organization of lawyers. Now is the time for all of us at the BBA to show Boston, the country, and the world that we can continue to advance respectful, innovative, and common-ground solutions to big challenges. But that must start at home with listening to one another and getting involved. I am proud and grateful to work with all of you, and I have no doubt that you will continue the great tradition in this Commonwealth during times of change or uncertainty, by rolling up your sleeves and asking the simple question, “How can I help?”
Carol A. Starkey is the president of the Boston Bar Association. She is a partner at Conn, Kavanaugh, Rosenthal, Peisch & Ford.
By James D. Smeallie
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. Vaughan Fund of the BBF helps support the operations of this program.
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 landlords.
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 tenants.
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 needs.
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.