Legal program seeks to close 'justice gap' on housing

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PITTSFIELD — Participants in Berkshire Housing Court now have access to legal advice and assistance from members of the Berkshire Bar Association through its new Lawyer for the Day program.

The program, which began with the Jan. 4 Housing Court session, will complement legal services already provided to low-income tenants and property owners provided by Community Legal Aid, said Gordon Shaw, its director of client access.

Shaw said the Lawyer for the Day will likely advise on cases brought by private tenants and their landlords, while Community Legal Aid attorney Paul Schack will continue primarily addressing issues concerning subsidized housing and tenancy.

"We don't have the resources to assist everybody that qualifies for legal help, so the call went out to the private bar and a big nod to Judge (Dina E). Fein who really initiated this to ask the bar to help close what we call the 'justice gap' by volunteering in court," Shaw said.

Following a training held in December, about 13 members of the Berkshire Bar Association have volunteered to each take a Housing Court session on a rotating basis.

Berkshire Bar Association treasurer Darren M. Lee is taking the first 2017 session of Housing Court, held each Wednesday in the Berkshire County Courthouse in Pittsfield.

Lee said housing law is complicated and Housing Court cases can move quickly. Without legal advice, many may not be aware of their rights.

A criminal case in District Court can take months to a year or more to be resolved, as opposed to Housing Court cases, which are normally wrapped up much more quickly.

"These things take six weeks. (People) show up unrepresented, it moves fast and sometimes their rights may or may not be compromised," said Lee. "This gives them an opportunity to have an attorney there for them and represent them and their interests."

"That's why it's important and I think the court recognizes that need," Lee said.

NO GUARANTEE

In criminal court, people who can't afford representation are entitled to counsel if they're facing an offense that could put them in jail. Plaintiffs and defendants in housing court matters do not have that same guarantee.

"You should have (counsel), but you're not entitled to it," Lee said.

Rather than slowing the process, having an additional avenue to solicit legal aid should help things move forward more efficiently, Lee said.

Pro-se trials, in which someone acts as their own attorney, can be "painfully slow," Lee said. Having the advice of someone who can remove emotion and anger and concentrate on the merits of the case should streamline the process.

"I think it will move the docket a lot quicker and I think the court recognizes that," Lee said.

Pittsfield attorney Joshua Hochberg is also participating in the Lawyer for the Day program. He said providing even a small amount of legal advice can be of great benefit, especially considering the speed of Housing Court matters.

"Because it's such a fast process, compared to almost any other lawsuit, we've seen people go into court and really not know what they're getting into and so it's a position where someone with just a little training can really aid someone, either a landlord or a tenant," Hochberg said. "That doesn't mean we have to represent them, but we can give some really basic advice that will go a long way."

EVICTION DOMINATES

Hochberg said most cases in Housing Court involve eviction. Others deal with alleged improper upkeep and maintenance of properties.

In many eviction cases, Hochberg said, once a tenant has been served notice, they will file a counter-claim, "because the place wasn't kept up the way it should be, the landlord entered the house when they shouldn't have, things like that."

Hochberg said Community Legal Aid will typically assist with those counter-claims while that day's Lawyer for the Day may advise a property owner. That advice may focus on where their rights and responsibilities begin and end.

One goal is to reach an agreement between parties.

Hochberg said the Lawyer for the Day will act in a largely advisory role, but doesn't rule out actual representation or the filing of an appearance, if the situation warrants.

"I and most of the attorneys who signed up are just happy to be able to give back. It's not overly burdensome, it's once to three times per year and it's a good way to do pro bono work." Hochberg said.

"Working in these courts, we see people who need help. So we have firsthand experience with the people who go through it and the Berkshire Bar Association did a great job making this easy for people to volunteer, so that's why I wanted to do it."

Reach staff writer Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249 or @BobDunn413 on Twitter.


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