Last September, following a year of research, the Boston Bar Association Task Force on Civil Right to Counsel released Gideon's New Trumpet, a groundbreaking report proposing a number of pilot projects to provide low-income people with a legal right to counsel in civil proceedings in which certain fundamental human needs are at risk. Since that time, advocates in Massachusetts have launched two pilot projects exploring the impact of full representation in eviction cases.
The pilot projects tests the theory that an expanded civil right to counsel should target the cases in which counsel is most likely to have a positive impact on the outcome. Representation will focus on scenarios identified through a survey of housing experts in the state: where the eviction was tied to a mental disability, where it involves criminal conduct, and where listed factors reveal a power imbalance likely to deprive a tenant of an affordable apartment where a viable defense exists.
One pilot project is situated in a specialized housing court and another in a generalized district court, since evictions occur in both types of courts in Massachusetts. The funding supports representation through two legal services offices. Evaluative tools, including a randomized experiment, will attempt to measure the efficacy of the program, testing the theory that representation in fact leads to a preservation of shelter. The projects also hope to obtain estimates as to the numbers statewide of these types of eviction cases, should the program become the basis for a statewide proposal.
Funding for the pilot projects has been provided by the Boston Foundation, the Boston Bar Foundation, and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation.