Guest Post: Elena Kuran is the current Lawyer Referral Service Intern at the Boston Bar Association. Elena is a third-year International Affairs major at Northeastern University.
On any given Thursday, the fifth floor of the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse is crowded before most people even begin their workday. Landlords, tenants, and attorneys representing both groups drift in and out of Courtroom 10, filling out paperwork, trying to quiet children, and navigating the sprawling Courthouse.
At the center of the Housing Court’s activity are the Lawyer for the Day clinic tables, organized by organizations including Volunteer Lawyers Project, Greater Boston Legal Services, Harvard Law School, and New England School of Law. Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) organizes and trains volunteer attorneys who provide pro bono services each week. The volunteers represent firms ranging from boutique to some of the largest in Boston.
The volunteer lawyers provide legal advice and strategy, help fill out forms, provide referrals to service agencies, and on occasion, represent pro se defendants. These attorneys help fill a critical gap: roughly 95% of tenants in Housing Court are without counsel. A majority of advised clients choose mediation over going straight to a bench trial and leave Courtroom 10 to meet with their landlord’s attorney a few floors below.
After observing the volunteer lawyers interact with the pro se defendants, it was clear to me that they also serve a less direct but equally important role: to send a message to those tenants facing eviction that they have someone who will vouch for them, who cares about the outcome of their case, who is sympathetic to the fact that the system has let them slip through the cracks.
At the same time, it was also easy to see that the volunteers are well versed in speaking with the attorneys representing the landlords who are handing out the eviction notices. In one instance, an attorney representing a management company expressed regret that he was helping to evict a young, single mother. The volunteer attorney suggested he take a more sympathetic approach, and give the tenant an extra month to find a new apartment.
These volunteer attorneys help to remedy injustices which are the result of a long history of structural oppression and marginalization of communities of color in particular. The affordable housing crisis in Boston is exacerbated by expanding academic institutions and an increasing population of short-term renters. Secure housing is a right, and to guarantee it for all will require major governmental intervention. In the meantime, the donated time and expert advice of volunteer attorneys ensure a better outcome for tenants who would otherwise have no one on their side.
If you’re interested in becoming involved with the Lawyer for the Day Program, attend an upcoming training at the Boston Bar Association. Attorneys from Volunteer Lawyers Project will guide attendees through trying a case in housing court on Wednesday, April 17th from 2:30 – 5:00 PM. Read more information about the event and register to attend here.