PRESS RELEASE: McDuffie’s “Expanding Access to Justice Act” Included and Funded in Current Budget Report

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Program would fund lawyers for low-income tenants in D.C. Landlord & Tenant Court

Currently about 90% of landlords have representation while fewer than 10% of tenants do [1]

Similar program in New York City reduced evictions by 24% [2]

Puts the District of Columbia on the path to establishing a ‘Civil Gideon,’ the right to counsel in some civil cases

Washington, D.C. – Today, the District of Columbia Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety passed their budget report which included a subtitle, “Expanding Access to Justice Act.” This legislation would create a grant program, managed by the DC Bar Foundation, to provide free legal counsel to low-income tenants at or below 200% of the federal poverty line facing eviction.

Statement from Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie:

“I am encouraged by the actions of the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that today voted to fund a ‘Civil Gideon’ program which I first introduced last year as Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary.

This program is about keeping people in their homes and protecting District residents and families from unjust evictions.

We know that landlords are represented by lawyers in housing court about 90% of the time while tenants are represented in less than 10% of cases. This dramatic imbalance tilts the playing field in favor of landlords at the expense of tenants and has the result of creating more homeless people and families in D.C.

It is my sincere hope that this program is just the first step in establishing a right to counsel for specific housing court cases in the District of Columbia. Just as the Supreme Court decided in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 that it was unconstitutional to allow a person to go without representation in a criminal trial, I believe it is unwise and immoral to send people to court, with their homes on the line, without representation.”

Background and Timeline of ‘Civil Gideon’ in the District of Columbia:

  • Starting in spring of 2016, Councilmember McDuffie brought together stakeholders to discuss the idea of establishing a civil right to counsel for certain cases, focusing on housing court.
  • This led to a Roundtable held on June 22, 2016 at University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law on civil right to counsel. (Media advisory of roundtable)
    • At the Roundtable, Jessica Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the DC Access to Justice Coalition remarked:
      • “Our justice system is designed for lawyers…it’s only well-navigated by lawyers. Imagine a hospital where if you’re a poor patient you’re told to put in your own IV. That would be morally deplorable. And it should be in our justice system.”
  • The roundtable led to legislation being introduced on September 20, 2016:
    • Official DC Council legislative record: http://lims.dccouncil.us/Legislation/B21-0879
    • Co-Introduced or Co-Sponsored by 12 of 13 Councilmembers.
    • Statement from Councilmember McDuffie at the time of introduction:
      • “The overwhelming majority of low-income tenants in the District of Columbia go to court without an attorney. 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.”
      • “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”
  • On October 19, 2016, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill:
  • The legislative clock ran out in December 2016 and the bill was re-introduced at the first legislative meeting of January:

Additional Links and Information on the Civil Right to Council and Civil Gideon:

  • New York Times Editorial in February 2017 supporting Mayor De Blasio’s investments in legal services for tenants:
    • “Even as affordable housing grows scarcer and the gentrification tide makes many New Yorkers feel doomed to dislocation, one weapon for tenants has always been obvious, if expensive: lawyers. Landlords have deeper pockets than tenants, and they are often vicious in the tactics they use to forcibly, often illegally, clear renters out for redevelopment and gentrification. At a time when America’s most powerful landlord, President Trump, has threatened to put legal services for the poor on the chopping block, New York City is pointing in another direction, toward justice for those who can’t always afford to pay for it themselves.”
  • Eric Holder on Civil Gideon:
    • “Holder cautions the fight is far from over. For one, there is a lack of legal help for far too many families who face life-altering decisions in family court. Gideon was a seminal case [that established the right to counsel] for criminal matters, but we often ignore the need on the civil side when life-changing matters are being decided. I saw that as a judge all the time…The numbers of people who are not represented in crucial, life-changing decisions in court are just shocking. This is a time to talk about marrying up the civil side [of judicial matters] to Gideon,” Holder says
  • Washington Times coverage of the hearing, October 19, 2016 by Ryan McDermott
  • Testimony from the hearing by Peter Edelman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy, Georgetown Law Center, and Chair, D.C. Access to Justice Commission:
    • [T]he extent of pro se representation for low-income people has skyrocketed. In cities all over the country, 90 percent or more defendants (and some plaintiffs) in courts with high-volume dockets routinely appear without counsel. Our city [Washington, D.C.] is no exception… Increasing the availability of counsel in crucial categories of cases will make a major difference. No category is more crucial than housing. Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted, tells us why if we had any doubt. In survey after survey, low-income people put housing at the top of their list of legal needs. Cities across the country, especially New York City, are undertaking new initiatives to increase representation in housing courts. We should join them.”

[1] Testimony before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee on the Judiciary hearing on B21-0879, “Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016,” October 19, 2016. LINK to PDF of Committee Hearing Record.

[2] New York City Office of Civil Justice, 2016 Annual Report, June 2016. LINK to PDF of Report.

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