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D.C. Bar, Courts Call on Lawyers to Redouble Pro Bono Efforts

October 08, 2021

In an October 8 opinion piece published in the Washington Post, the D.C. Bar and the D.C. Courts issued an urgent call to action for D.C. lawyers to commit more to pro bono service as the city and the courts prepare to confront the coming eviction crisis.

With D.C.’s eviction moratorium expiring October 12, putting thousands of tenants in an inequitable fight to keep a roof over their heads, “unprecedented turmoil and loss may well unfold in our communities and courts,” wrote D.C. Bar President Chad Sarchio, D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, and D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring. “Lawyers have the power to save homes, families and futures. All that is required is the will to help, time to volunteer, and the solid judgment that comes from legal education and practice.”

The full op-ed is below.

D.C. lawyers must step up during the eviction crisis

Opinion by Chad Sarchio, Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and Anita Josey-Herring

Chad Sarchio is president of the District of Columbia Bar. Anna Blackburne-Rigsby is chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and chair of the D.C. Courts Joint Committee on Judicial Administration. Anita Josey-Herring is chief judge of D.C. Superior Court.

The nationwide ban on evictions is over, and for the millions of people who have been on the brink of homelessness since the beginning of the pandemic, the future looks daunting. Here in D.C., where tenant protections are stronger than in most jurisdictions, more than 14,400 D.C. residents who have fallen behind on their rent risk eviction in the coming months.

With D.C.’s last remaining coronavirus safety nets for tenants expiring Oct. 12, and landlords soon able to file eviction actions for nonpayment of rent, unprecedented turmoil and loss may well unfold in our communities and courts.

To begin to understand this problem, one must trace its root cause: widening housing inequality along economic and racial lines. Even before the pandemic, thousands of residents were living in precarious conditions in a city with a dwindling supply of safe and affordable housing. To rent a one-bedroom apartment at fair market value, for example, a minimum-wage earner must work 79 hours per week, according to a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. An estimated 23,000 households were paying more than half their income in rent, so small paycheck decreases — say, working 30 instead of 40 hours per week — have crushing effects. As of Sept. 27, more than 250,000 D.C. residents had filed for unemployment claims.

Housing advocates have long sounded the alarm about this crisis. Now we must confront what it means for individuals and families on the verge of poverty and homelessness. For a glimpse at the damage, look to the D.C. Courts, where a flood of eviction filings is expected to hit soon.

In D.C. Superior Court, tenants find themselves in desperate, unequal struggles to keep a roof over their heads. It is estimated that 88 percent of tenants will appear without counsel; 95 percent of landlords will have representation. Shockingly, in the U.S. city with the most lawyers per capita, real access to justice simply is out of reach.

Most lawyers pride themselves on upholding high ideals of equality and fairness under the law. If ever there were a time for them to labor in service to these principles, that moment is now. As Attorney General Merrick Garland said in his recent call to action, “state courts are on the front lines of this crisis,” and lawyers, with their skills and training, are in the best position to guard that front. Lawyers have the power to save homes, families and futures. All that is required is the will to help, time to volunteer, and the solid judgment that comes from legal education and practice.

Every day in court, attorneys and judges witness critical moments when the balance tips against unrepresented litigants. Many struggle to understand the rules, build cases or present evidence and arguments persuasively. For the substantial percentage of litigants who also confront mental illness, physical disabilities, low literacy, lack of access to technology and domestic violence, self-representation begets a frequently tragic fait accompli.

D.C. residents living in poverty and at risk of eviction also often experience multiple, simultaneous legal problems: accessing Social Security or disability benefits to help pay rent or qualify for safer, affordable housing; filing for bankruptcy to get fresh starts on financial futures; fighting for child custody; or seeking protection against abusive partners. The help of legal professionals in these matters is critical and life-changing.

Many law firms already have pro bono programs in place, consistent with D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1. Now is the time to redouble those commitments and build stronger cadres of lawyers ready, willing and able to serve neighbors in crisis. We also hope that our federal government colleagues will rise to these challenges. With the support of numerous legal services organizations across D.C., including the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, together we can help blunt the pandemic’s impact on people’s lives.

Non-lawyers can play lifesaving roles, too. Pro bono and low bono legal services providers are notoriously underfunded. Legal services providers labor in the trenches with little fanfare and generally inadequate resources.

It is a privilege to be part of a profession that operates the scales of justice. But we are obliged to keep them in balance, even for those who cannot afford counsel.

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