PITTSFIELD — When so many court proceedings moved online at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, so, too, did spaces where people with business before the Housing Court could get help from a lawyer, free of cost.
But, some Berkshire County residents were unable to log on because of the lack of smartphone, computer or internet access, said Laura Fenn, assistant clerk magistrate of the Western Division Housing Court.
What’s more, without access to those technologies, some are forced to participate in their Housing Court hearings by calling in over the phone, said Attorney Darren Lee. That makes it all but impossible for the person to view exhibits and other documents that might be presented during their hearing.
So, a physical space is opening up at the old Second Street Jail for landlords and tenants who don’t have their own attorney to use technology needed for logging on to the remote video hearings, and receive basic legal help from a lawyer — similar to the Lawyer for the Day program that was run out of Central Berkshire District Court before the pandemic restricted access, Lee said.
According to the Housing Court Department Western Division, a full 92 percent of the tenants and 30 percent of landlords who appeared in Housing Court in 2018 were self-represented.
“This way, a party can come here and try their case, see the exhibits, and actually be seen on the video with the judge,” Lee said recently at the old jail.
The lawyers will be on hand at the old jail from 9 a.m. to noon May 12 and May 26 — both Wednesdays, which is when the Pittsfield session of the Housing Court convenes. The arrangement came together after Fenn connected with Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler, who offered space in the old jail, and partnered with Lee, treasurer of the Berkshire County Bar Association, who arranged for lawyers to staff sessions.
The team will schedule additional sessions at the old jail if courthouse restrictions still are in effect after the end of May, Fenn said.
“If for some reason the restrictions are extended through the summer, we’re willing to accommodate them for as long as they need us,” Bowler added.
A federal moratorium in place is preventing some evictions, but Fenn said some tenants don’t qualify, or haven’t challenged proceedings under the moratorium. By providing the space, Fenn and Bowler said, tenants will be able speak with an attorney and participate meaningfully in proceedings about matters as fundamental as keeping a roof over their heads.
“Everybody should have the ability for due process to take place, and this is providing them the opportunity to have that due process,” Bowler said.
The services aren’t limited to tenants. Landlords can stop by on those Wednesdays for assistance with legal proceedings, too, and Lee said there is no income requirements to be able to participate.
“We want to make sure that anybody who’s facing issues of homelessness or other events that deal with housing matters have access to the courts,” Fenn said.