New York City Proposing Bill to Provide Legal Aid to Victims of Foreclosure and Eviction

New York City Proposing Bill to Provide Legal Aid to Victims of Foreclosure and Eviction

In a move that would help even the playing field in eviction and foreclosure lawsuits, the New York City Council is proposing to provide a lawyer to lower-income residents in these cases. If it succeeds, New York City will become the first municipality in the United States to combat the power imbalance between landlord and tenant in these types of cases.

The Supreme Court has guaranteed a lawyer to those facing the possibility of incarceration since the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963. But outside of criminal courts, Americans are not afforded the promise of counsel in the legal system. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to counsel in criminal cases, but the Constitution does not provide a similar right in civil cases.

Since 2005, the number of evictions in New York City has risen almost every year, reaching 28,849 in 2013, according to Housing Court Answers, a research and advocacy group that runs the information tables in the NYC Housing Court. Those studying the issue argue that as many as half of those evictions could have been averted with legal representation.

The New York City Council currently has before it a bill that would provide free legal representation to anyone facing eviction or foreclosure who has an income of less than twice the federal poverty line. In New York City, that means an individual making below $44,000. Tenants in about 80 percent of all housing court cases each year would qualify, according to a report commissioned by the New York City Bar Association.

This type of legal assistance is almost always the difference between success and failure for tenants. Landlord/tenant law can be confusing and complicated, and all legal matters require a basic knowledge of filing and pleading rules. Legal studies show that between 70 and 90 percent of litigants appear in court without a lawyer (pro se). The vast majority of landlords, on the other hand, are represented by seasoned attorneys who know the law and understand very well how the court system works. When tenants represent themselves in court, the result is that they end up being evicted almost half the time.

Studies have shown that tenants represented by counsel default less often, receive better settlements, and win more often at trial. With a lawyer, tenants win 90 percent of the time. Even when an eviction does happen, experienced attorneys can help families improve the otherwise bleak situation by assisting them in locating assistance programs to cover arrears, or by having judgments vacated so that their credit scores do not suffer. In 2013, for example, New York legal assistance housing attorneys helped approximately 96% of their clients avoid entering the homeless shelter system – the tenants may not have always kept their residences, but attorneys were able to either help find other solutions or buy time needed to relocate.

This bill has the strong backing of housing advocates, community leaders and legal services providers, as well as the private bar. Part of the reason is very pragmatic – this type of program could save the city money. The benefit of adequate representation in housing court goes beyond stabilizing and improving the lives of families. The New York Times recently reported on a number of efforts underway across the country to track the economic impact of equal representation in civil cases. In one example, a Boston Bar Association study found that for every one dollar spent on legal services, two to three dollars were saved by reductions in municipal expenses associated with eviction, including the cost of shelter, health care, and increases in public benefits.

This is not the first step New York City has taken to combat homelessness resulting from evictions. In an effort to combat homelessness, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has spent nearly $20 million over two years to provide lawyers for low-income tenants fighting evictions in Housing Court.


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Law Firm Writing Off $928,000 in Client Bills

Law Firm Writing Off $928,000 in Client Bills

Columbus, Ohio – The law firm of Doucet & Associates Co., L.P.A. is writing off $928,507 in client debt this year to help its clients afford other living expenses. The law firm primarily helps people facing foreclosure and consumers taken advantage of by businesses. The large write-off is part of the firm’s philosophy about ensuring the “little guy” can hire top quality legal representation without going bankrupt. The firm writes off portions of clients’ bills at the end of most cases so that its clients can move on with their lives without having to worry about a lawyer’s final bill.

Most of Doucet & Associates Co., L.P.A.’s clients are unable to pay the firm’s full hourly rate each month, so the firm asks clients to pay a monthly minimum payment against their bill. That charge can range between $20 and $800 per month, depending on the case and the client’s ability to pay. Even if the firm wins or settles the case, it regularly writes off a portion of the remaining bill so their clients can find peace rather than face a lingering attorney’s bill.

The firm’s write-off this year includes work done by the firm’s dedicated pro bono attorney. The firm’s owner, Troy Doucet, hired this attorney after reflecting last Christmas on how the firm could do more good this year. The pro bono attorney is dedicated to helping the poor for free (or at a minimal cost based on income), and has worked closely with The Legal Aid Society of Columbus. The lawyer primarily helps tenants facing eviction from abusive landlords. Mr. Doucet indicates the pro bono position has been a tremendous success serving the poor, and that the firm will continue to fund the position indefinitely into the future.

In summing up his philosophy, Mr. Doucet explains, “We work very hard to protect people from being taken advantage of by others, and I would rather see a home saved from foreclosure than one of our clients risk losing it again because of our bill.” He says he is very proud of his firm’s substantial write-off, indicating his feeling that too many people chase making money rather than focusing on doing good. “This is a terrific time of year to reflect on how we help the less fortunate in our daily lives, and a great time to think about what we can do next year to help even more.” He hopes others find ways to do a little more good in the world, even if that means earning a little less.

Those in Ohio who need help with a legal issue, even if they cannot afford a lawyer, can reach the law firm at (614) 944-5219 or send us a message online.


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