Ensuring Access to Justice for Low-Income Tenants

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For many low-income tenants who live in substandard living conditions or face eviction, access to justice is often elusive.

This often occurs because landlords and tenants are not entering the courtroom on a level playing field. Before their case is even considered, the deck is stacked against low-income tenants.

In fact, while 90 percent of landlords throughout the country are represented by attorneys, an overwhelming 90 percent of tenants go through their case without any legal representation.

In order to ensure greater access to justice for low-income tenants in our state, Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama, recently filed an amici curiae brief in support of tenants’ rights in a case before the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. The case is Morrow v. Pake. The University of Alabama School of Law’s Civil Law Clinic represented the tenant pro bono in the trial court, and Paula W. Hinton and William M. Logan from Winston & Strawn LLP are assisting pro bono with the appeal.

The facts of the case are sadly all-too-familiar for low-income families in Alabama.

In Tuscaloosa, a mother and her children moved into a single-family home. Under the lease, the landlord tried to relieve himself of responsibility for basic needs in the home such as ensuring working electrical and plumbing systems. Soon after moving in, the living conditions became dangerous, including defective smoke detectors and faulty and failing electrical wiring. The landlord refused to address these issues. Desperate to keep her family safe, the tenant attempted to make some improvements on her own. After more attempts to get the landlord to make the necessary repairs, the landlord moved to evict the tenant. Instead of fighting the landlord in court, the tenant moved her family into a new home.

Once the tenant settled into her new residence, she filed a complaint seeking to hold the landlord accountable for his violations of the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) (which includes a right to decent housing); his breaches of the rental agreement; and his unjust enrichment from the tenant’s improvements to the property.

The lower court ruled in favor of the landlord, who argued that the tenant was legally obligated to raise her claims during the landlord’s eviction proceeding, and therefore was barred from later raising these claims.

Yet the URLTA clearly does not require a tenant to bring her claims during the eviction proceeding. In fact, the law says the tenant “may” bring the claims during the eviction process – which means that the tenant then may also raise them at a later date.

Moreover, the purpose of the Act is to streamline the eviction process and to keep the focus on resolving the possession issue – and not necessarily other claims either party may have against one another. This is evident by the requirement that the tenant respond to the eviction action within 7 days. It is unfathomable to expect a tenant—who is on the verge of being uprooted from their home—to also obtain counsel and file a detailed counterclaim in such a period of immediate hardship.

In order to ensure equal access to justice and basic fairness for all tenants—regardless of their financial status—the Court of Appeals must uphold the right of tenants to bring counterclaims against landlords in later proceedings.

In addition, the State must provide more and adequate resources for civil legal aid programs throughout the state—including the Volunteers Lawyers Programs, Legal Services Alabama, and the other clinics and service providers—who provide low-income Alabamians, including tenants, with vital access to legal representation.

Especially as we enter the holiday season, it is essential that we protect the most vulnerable among us and uphold the rights of all Alabamians so they can enjoy equal access to justice.

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