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Landlord and Tenant Court provides a view of humanity in some of its bleakest moments. Tenants, most often those with the least resources, stand before a judge in D.C. Superior Court, struggling to keep their homes and avoid that one-way ticket to the street. And almost none of them have representation. In conjunction with the court, several legal-aid groups and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program have started a pilot project to give people same-day representation that could mean the difference between a place to live and eviction. Called the Court-based Landlord and Tenant Legal Services Office, the project is staffed two days a week, with attorneys rotating from Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, Bread for the City, and the Neighborhood Legal Services Program. The month-old program also works closely with the Landlord Tenant Resource Center, which also is located in the courthouse. Close to 45,000 cases pass through the Landlord and Tenant Branch each year. According to a report by the D.C. Bar Foundation, a lack of affordable housing and extreme poverty have made housing issues the “greatest legal need” of poor people within the District, and 99 percent of tenants before the court have no representation. “I think the difference that an attorney makes is that an attorney knows the procedures and the rules and is able to make the tenant’s voice heard,” says Beth Mellen Harrison, a housing attorney for the Legal Aid Society who has staffed the program twice so far. “A lot of law is knowing the magic words to articulate the rights you have.” Last week, Harrison helped a woman facing eviction. Cathy Cleckley sat on the edge of tears in the court hallway, nervous that she and her two sons would have to move, but the judge ordered a stay on the eviction notice, allowing Cleckley time to prepare for her case with help from Harrison. “She read it out to me and explained it to me. She took time out to help,” says Cleckley. “Thank God for that.” Dan Clark, the supervising attorney for the Landlord Tenant Resource Center, which gives legal information to anyone seeking help with housing issues, says the center has “an emergency-room style.” Both landlords and tenants without lawyers fill the waiting room, seeking help with litigation, housing-code violations, uncooperative tenants, or nonpayment of rent. With a rotating staff from nine to 10 D.C. law firms, the center has three attorneys and one legal assistant who provide legal information and help with paperwork and referrals for representation to more than 4,000 people who use the center each year. The center doesn’t provide lawyers to represent people in court, so the new program helps fill that gap. The program accepts clients who meet specific income levels and need lawyers immediately, and the attorneys can keep working with clients who need further representation. Judges in the Civil Division facilitated the project by providing space in the courthouse for the program and by issuing an administrative order allowing attorneys to represent clients on a temporary basis, without the formalities of the typical attorney-client contract. Judge Stephanie Duncan-Peters, who helped develop the project, says legal-aid groups and the resource center noticed some people “weren’t articulating the same defense or points” to a judge that they had discussed with attorneys at the center. “So we discussed the idea that there could be an attorney there that day.” The courtroom for Landlord and Tenant Court looks like the innards of a small-town Protestant church, with rows of uncomfortable wooden benches and large, arched windows punctuating the right wall. Last Monday, Judge Lynn Leibovitz heard about 15 cases in an hour — many parties didn’t show up, others came unprepared, and some didn’t understand the issues confronting them. Judges have a yearlong assignment in other branches of the Civil Division, but they only spend one week at a time in Landlord and Tenant Court. “Frankly, it’s one of the roughest assignments that judges have,” Chief Judge Rufus King III said in an interview with Legal Times last year. “The folks in Landlord and Tenant Court are just poor. It’s very, very hard to carry out that assignment.” In the hallway outside the courtroom, people sit in fabric-covered chairs, chatting softly about their cases or rifling through paperwork. “What is really horrifying is the amount of people who go out in the hallway and settle (with landlords),” says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Legal Aid Society. In the District, tenants have substantial rights because of some of the strongest pro-tenant laws in the country. If landlords violate housing codes — such as leaky ceilings, no heat, or rat infestations — tenants can withhold payment of some or all of their rent. “The vast majority of litigants have some defense they could raise, and the vast majority of litigants give it up because they don’t have the resources to raise it,” Smith says. The groups supporting the new program want to expand it so an attorney would be available every weekday for clients who need immediate representation. Smith estimates they could handle from 300 to 500 cases a year with the extra staffing, but a program of that size would need about $500,000 in funding. The legal-aid groups filed a joint grant proposal with the D.C. Bar Foundation. The foundation is doling out $3.2 million in grants from the first-ever influx of cash for civil legal services from the D.C. Council. Decisions on the proposals should be made public by early April. The Superior Court also has added a small-claims resource center and is working on a similar center for tax-foreclosure cases for pro se clients. “Our hope is to be able to have resource centers available for everybody in the Civil Division eventually,” Duncan-Peters says.
The Common Good is a monthly column devoted to the pro bono community. Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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