Volunteer Justice: Washington County, Vermont
MONTPELIER, VT – JULY 9, 2018
It’s quite easy to find and write about problems I see with various systems of justice as I travel, but I want to make sure to devote some time and space to the more uplifting and reassuring observations on my journey as well. One of the major issues facing lower- or fixed-income people who interact with the court system is obtaining legal representation. For all their underfunding and lack of support in many areas of the country, public defenders do an admirable job as a structural fix to this issue, providing representation to indigent defendants in criminal cases.
But criminal cases are not the only profoundly life-altering (and even life-threatening) court proceedings a person might be entangled in, and in civil cases, there is no right to counsel. The recent high-profile example has been the scandalous and, dare I say, despicable fact that there is no guarantee of counsel in immigration proceedings, resulting in children having to represent themselves. But another perniciously threatening area to low-income Americans is housing – with no right to legal representation, financially struggling tenants often find themselves facing eviction proceedings without a lawyer. Eviction, which millions of Americans face each year, only further compounds the financial strain these individuals feel and the employment, medical, and social issues which contribute to it. With that in mind, I headed to Washington County Civil Court in Montpelier, Vermont to observe housing proceedings.
After arriving at the courthouse and explaining to the one jovial courthouse deputy that I was a student there to observe the court proceedings, I was greeted by several volunteer attorneys who were there to offer legal help to unrepresented defendants facing rent escrow or eviction proceedings. The clinic, one of several organized by the Vermont Volunteer Lawyers Project in civil courts across the state, asks unrepresented defendants who arrive to court if they would like limited representation (for that appearance).
The benefits of having legal help for such a proceeding are numerous. They range from the basic – having a professional familiar with the strange lexicon and procedures of the courtroom on your side – to the less concrete, such as the increased ability a lawyer might have to negotiate a settlement with a landlord’s attorney. Attorneys can, as the lawyers at the clinic explained, often negotiate payment plans that allow a defendant to remain in their home, raise counterclaims against the landlord if there are habitability issues, or move to dismiss eviction proceedings due to legal issues with the landlord’s case.
The lawyers volunteering worked in many different (and non-housing related) areas of law, but the clinic used a thorough training manual (which I was enthusiastically lent to read) to familiarize new volunteer attorneys with Vermont landlord/tenant law, common defenses and counterclaims to raise in evictions, and common questions to ask clients when familiarizing themselves with the cases. When each client arrived, one lawyer took their case and interviewed them, distributing the workload amongst all the lawyers present.
Their system for ensuring quality representation of clients by lawyers from so many different legal backgrounds was incredibly impressive to watch in action, and their clients seemed to benefit from this representation. One attorney was able to work out a settlement and payment plan with the public housing authority for her client – importantly, one that her client felt able to pay – allowing the client to keep the apartment. Another worked out a settlement where her client would move to a different apartment, but the case would be dismissed, leaving the client with no record, something that could adversely affect future housing prospects. Seeing clients benefit from this entirely volunteer and incredibly well-organized effort was a inspiring moment; despite the small scale of these efforts, their individual impact in the lives of people struggling to keep their homes cannot be overstated.
PS: One related suggestion from my travels: anyone with the opportunity should see the exhibition “Evicted” at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., which offers a compelling and chilling look at the eviction crisis in the United States. It’s open through May 19, 2019, and the exhibition is free!