An Investment in Justice: Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases

by Christine M. Netski

President’s Page

As BBA President, I have been fortunate to be involved in many important advocacy efforts to improve access to our justice system. In just the last few months, the BBA has filed amicus briefs in the Supreme Judicial Court arguing for just compensation for appointed counsel representing indigent criminal defendants, advocating for the right to counsel in civil contempt proceedings where indigent defendants face a realistic risk of incarceration, and urging that unidentified IOLTA funds should revert to the IOLTA Committee for the benefit of indigent residents of the Commonwealth. Most recently, I was honored to represent the BBA at the annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, where we once again advocated for increased funding for legal services through our partnership with the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). Access to justice and service to the community at large are central to the BBA’s mission and we believe that no one in need of legal help should be turned away based on the inability to pay.

Too often, however, one’s ability to access justice is directly tied to one’s financial resources and far too many indigent litigants in civil cases are forced to navigate the legal system without the benefit of counsel, often with devastating consequences. One area where the justice gap on the civil side is particularly acute is housing. Boston is in the depths of a housing displacement crisis spurred by skyrocketing rents, higher rates of eviction for profit and a severe shortage of truly affordable housing. Approximately 39,600 households in Massachusetts faced eviction proceedings in 2019[1] and 92% of these tenants were forced to defend these cases without help from attorneys. In contrast, over 70% of the landlords in these proceedings were represented.[2] Moreover, MLAC’s statistics reveal that 64% of eligible residents (those who are at or below 125% of the federal poverty level) who seek help with a housing case are turned away due to a lack of available funding.[3]

The BBA has long advocated for the right to counsel for indigent parties in civil cases and, in 2008, established a Task Force on Expanding the Civil Right to Counsel that produced Gideon’s New Trumpet, a comprehensive report outlining the arguments for a right to counsel in a variety of civil cases where basic human needs are at stake. Among other areas, the report highlighted housing law and made a compelling case for counsel as a matter of right for indigent tenants facing eviction, noting that “tenants who are represented are much more likely to obtain a better result, whether it be maintaining possession of the premises, reaching a favorable settlement or winning a trial.”[4]

Today, now 12 years after Gideon’s New Trumpet, there is reason to believe that the right to counsel for indigent parties in eviction cases will finally become a reality in Massachusetts. In June 2019, the BBA joined the Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition, a group of advocates and community members who support ensuring legal representation to low-income tenants, post-foreclosure occupants, and landlords. The Coalition’s proposed bill includes full legal representation for eligible individuals facing eviction in court and also calls for building the capacity of existing organizations to prevent evictions and promote housing stability, including proactive education and outreach, housing stabilization assistance, and other “upstream” support before litigation ensues.[5] At the July hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Mary Ryan of Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP (and co-author of Gideon’s New Trumpet) testified for the BBA in support of the legislation.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court also formally endorsed the bill in his October 2019 State of the Judiciary address, expressing hope that the efforts to provide legal counsel for all indigent parties in eviction proceedings “finally come to fruition.” And the Boston Globe has lauded the proposed legislation, stating that “Massachusetts residents facing eviction deserve legal representation” and outlining how this legislation could dramatically shift the disparity in representation between tenants and landlords.

Of course, as we monitor developments on the legislative front, the BBA continues to help tackle the immediate shortage of counsel in housing cases through Lawyer for the Day in the Housing Court. For over 20 years, the BBA has collaborated with Volunteer Lawyers Project, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and the Boston Housing Court to offer assistance to unrepresented tenants and landlords on Eviction Day. Since May 1999, volunteers in this collaborative program have helped more than 18,000 clients.

We are also proud of the work our BBF grantees are doing to combat evictions. As just one example, City Life/Vida Urbana is defending more than 800 Boston families fighting to stay in their homes, building anti-displacement zones in rapidly gentrifying areas, and opposing the construction of luxury housing in vulnerable neighborhoods without the addition of strong anti-displacement protections. They too believe that a right to counsel in eviction cases is an essential ingredient to addressing the current housing crisis.

And there is no question that civil legal aid organizations are doing a tremendous job in protecting and securing safe and affordable housing by enforcing health, safety, and accessibility standards; advocating for reforms that promote access to affordable housing; defending clients from unlawful eviction and combatting housing discrimination; protecting tenants at risk of losing housing subsidies; and helping to place vulnerable families in emergency shelters.

But the justice gap in eviction cases cannot be solved by legal services organizations and pro bono volunteers alone. The time has come for Massachusetts to be the first state in the nation to guarantee full legal representation for all indigent litigants in eviction proceedings.

Christine M. Netski is the President of the Boston Bar Association. She is also a managing partner and a member of the executive committee at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C.

[1] “Trial Court Statistical Reports and Dashboards.” Mass.gov, http://www.mass.gov/info-details/trial-court-statistical-reports-and-dashboards.

[2] “Why.” Right to Counsel in Massachusetts, http://www.massrtc.org/why.html.

[3] “Civil Legal Aid in Housing & Foreclosure.” Equal Justice Coalition, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, equaljusticecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/FY-20-Issue-fact-sheet-Housing.pdf.

[4] In fact, since New York City passed right to counsel legislation in 2017, 84% of tenants with full legal representation have remained in their homes (“Mass Coalition for the Right to Counsel.” Mass RTC, http://www.massrtc.org/uploads/2/7/0/4/27042339/rtc_flyer_11-19-19.pdf.)

[5] “Civil Legal Aid in Housing & Foreclosure.” Equal Justice Coalition, Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, equaljusticecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/FY-20-Issue-fact-sheet-Housing.pdf.


“We Bear a Responsibility to be Vigilant”

starkey_carolby Carol A. Starkey

President’s Page

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:

Immigration:

  • 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.