Ensuring Access to Justice for Low-Income Tenants

, ,

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.

The Constitutional Right to Counsel: Is it being upheld in Alabama?

, ,

The United States Constitution is clear. In criminal cases, the accused have a right to a lawyer. Our Constitution affords this protection in order to ensure that individuals are not wrongfully or unfairly deprived of their liberty.

Yet there is question as to whether this fundamental 6th Amendment right is being upheld in Alabama.

Throughout the South, states and districts are being sued for their failure to comply with the Constitution.

In Louisiana, indigent defendants have asserted that their constitutional right to counsel is being denied, which has led to a legal battle over the state’s failure to provide adequate funding and resources for the state public defender service.

Similarly, indigent defendants in South Carolina recently filed a class action lawsuit against certain jurisdictions for failure to provide legal representation.

Horrifically, one plaintiff in the South Carolina case, a homeless man, has been arrested or given a citation 270 times for the same offense, yet not once has he had an attorney represent him in court proceedings.

These cases demonstrate why we need to know if, how, and to what extent Alabama is ensuring access to counsel for indigent defendants.

Appleseed previously conducted a study of the indigent defense services in four Alabama judicial circuits from 2001-2002. This report has been widely cited for the insight it provided on the practices of indigent defense counsel and the outcomes of those cases.

But, there have been no such studies conducted since then, and there is no comprehensive report on indigent representation throughout Alabama.

In order to understand how and whether the right to counsel is being protected today, Appleseed will soon begin documenting and assessing the quality of indigent defense services in a wide range of counties.

Appleseed’s staff has been traveling to all corners of the state to engage with those in the community who are charged with the duty of ensuring that indigent defendants receive legal representation. We have been meeting with these stakeholders, including public defenders, criminal defense attorneys, judges, and other key Alabamians to hear their views on how the system is currently functioning and what aspects of indigent defense they believe we most need to research.

Alabamians care deeply about protecting the Constitution. This is why Appleseed will conduct this study, and then use the findings to collaborate with partners to ensure that all indigent defendants in the state have access to adequately resourced, quality legal representation.

Introducing Phillip Ensler – Alabama Appleseed’s Policy Counsel

,

My name is Phillip Ensler and I am excited to have recently joined Alabama Appleseed as Policy Counsel. In my role, I will provide direction and leadership to advance our policy goals. This includes managing the Access to Justice Campaign to improve access to adequate counsel for indigent clients in criminal and civil cases.

I graduated from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York this past May. Although I am a native New Yorker, coming to Montgomery is like returning home – or as we say down here, Sweet Home Alabama!

My history in Alabama dates back to when I was in college and visited Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham to see the sacred sites of the Civil Rights Movement. I was humbled and inspired by standing in the very places where Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and countless other heroes and foot soldiers had the courage to stand up for a more just and equal Alabama.

Despite the significant progress that has been made, I was also aware that there was still much more to be done. In this spirit, I moved to Montgomery in 2012 to serve as a Teach for America corps member, where I worked to help close the educational achievement gap. My students were just as talented and intelligent as students at any other school, but they were not given the same opportunities to succeed due their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

My experience in the classroom motivated me to attend law school in order to gain the skills and knowledge to fight to make the law fairer so everyone in Alabama can achieve their full potential. I was committed to returning to Alabama because it was a community that welcomed me with open arms, and it is where I have met some of the most dedicated and passionate people in my life.

After my second year of law school, I worked as a legal intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, where I worked on juvenile rights and education issues. And now, I am looking forward to the work Appleseed will do to ensure that more students are receiving the education and opportunities they deserve and do not become just another number in the system of mass incarceration.

We also have much work to do in the area of civil and criminal defense legal services for disadvantaged Alabamians. The words “Equal Justice Under the Law” are engraved on the façade of the United States Supreme Court. Yet in order to fully live up to that democratic principle in Alabama, we must ensure that all citizens have access to adequate lawyers, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Our justice system should not depend on which side has deeper financial pockets.

That is why at Appleseed we will be working with partners throughout the state to increase funding for civil legal services. This will ensure that those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer can continue to have access to legal assistance for vital services such as applying for veterans benefits or seeking to remain in their home in the face of eviction.

On the criminal side, we will similarly work with stakeholders to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive adequate counsel. The determination of truth and justice in a criminal case should not be predicated on whether a defendant can afford an attorney. At the Innocence Project, where I also did a legal internship, we saw in case after case that defendants were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for decades because they did not have access to adequate counsel during their cases. In order to prevent such injustices in Alabama, we will examine which methods are most effective in upholding indigent defendants’ Constitutional right to counsel. We will then advocate for these best practices to be implemented state-wide.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” At Appleseed we are determined to continue that effort for all of Alabama. I am grateful to be a part of such work and I look forward to working with activists, partners, and leaders throughout the state to make it happen.