Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Will Massachusetts Be the First?: Progress Toward Guaranteeing the Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases Statewide

On Wednesday, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Ralph Gants, endorsed a right to counsel in eviction cases in his State of the Judiciary speech. As Chief Justice Gants stated: "....where so much is at stake, it is no surprise that there are various efforts across the country to broaden access to counsel in eviction cases."  But, he continued, "if we are committed to residential stability, to reduce the number of evictions, and to avoid homelessness, we must do more than provide legal counsel."  
The pending bills endorsed by Chief Justice Gants are H.1537/S.913/H.3456.   They would guarantee a right to legal counsel to all indigent parties — landlords or tenants — in eviction cases, similar to the right guaranteed in criminal cases. 
Advocates in Massachusetts aim to ensure that it is the first state in the country to provide a right to counsel in eviction cases statewide.  Still, building on Chief Justice Gants' recognition of the inadequacy of counsel alone, the Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition is preparing to submit a draft bill to the state's Judiciary Committee that provides for both a right to counsel and recognizes the need to provide housing stabilization support and assistance before an eviction is filed. 
Considerable human rights advocacy has supported the domestic efforts to establish a right to counsel.  A thorough analysis was prepared in 2015 by policy students at the University of North Carolina Law School.   In 2017, the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel and the Northeastern Law School Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy also submitted a human rights analysis of the issue to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty in the context of his visit to the US.

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