December 8, 2012
"It's Easy to Tell Who's Going to Win in Eviction Court"
That's the conclusion of sociologist Matthew Desmond, reporting in the New York Times on his study of eviction court proceedings.
On one side of the room sit the tenants: men in work uniforms, mothers with children in secondhand coats, confused and crowded together on hard benches. On the other side, often in a set-aside space, are not the landlords but their lawyers: dark suits doing crossword puzzles and joking with the bailiff as they casually wait for their cases to be called.
Desmond reports that in many housing courts around the country, 90% of landlords are represented by counsel, and 90% of tenants are not. What difference does it make? As Desmond reports, a recent study of the Boston Bar Association showed that in a randomized sample of 129 cases, "two-thirds of tenants offered full representation avoided eviction, compared with one-third who were offered limited assistance like instructional clinics."
As Desmond points out, the consequences of eviction can be at least as economically, socially, and psychologically devastating for the evictees as incarceration. And, there is a benefit to providing representation to low-income tenants facing eviction for the rest of us: it's expensive, but providing shelter to those left homeless by eviction is actually more expensive.
And yet . . . there is something in us that revolts at the thought that someone behind in their rent should get a free lawyer. I know that if I presented the idea to my students, some would balk. Especially my older students who are landlords, who believe that the system is already stacked against them, not against their tenants. It seems to me that there is a greater disconnect about the balance of legal power between landlords and tenants than in most other areas of law. Both sides see the other as unfairly advantaged by the system.
I'd be curious to know whether other professors find the same about their students.
Mark A. Edwards
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