**FILE** D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie PHOTO BY ROY LEWIS
**FILE** D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

D.C. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) wants to provide free legal counsel to low-income residents in certain housing law cases.

Co-introduced by fellow Council members Anita Bonds, Jack Evans and Elissa Silverman on Tuesday, Sept. 20, the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016 would authorize the DC Bar Foundation (DCBF) to adopt policies and procedures, issue requests for proposals and make grants to designated legal-service providers as part of a new series of legal counsel projects.

“The overwhelming majority of low-income tenants in the District of Columbia go to court without an attorney” McDuffie said. “This puts them at a severe disadvantage in comparison with well-represented property owners.”

The providers would represent low-income tenants at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line who are facing eviction, housing code violations, termination from a rental housing subsidy program, increases in rent-controlled units and homeless shelter proceedings.

“Without attorneys, tenants can miss important deadlines, misunderstand documents and procedures, and make harmful decisions without being fully informed of their rights, and in some instances lose the case even when the eviction being sought is without merit,” McDuffie said. “A growing number of states are implementing Civil Gideon legislation, recognizing that legal representation in non-criminal, or civil, cases is one of the most significant legal reforms of our time.”

McDuffie, the chairperson of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary, contends that the analysis of those who need legal counsel shows that there are stark disparities.

Approximately 97 percent of of defendants appearing in Landlord/Tenant Court are pro se, or defending themselves.

Forty-five percent of formal probate matters, 98 percent of small estate matters and 60 percent of trust matters before the Probate Division of D.C. Superior Court involves pro se plaintiffs.

Ninety-eight percent of both petitioners and respondents in the Domestic Violence Unit of the D.C. Superior Court proceed pro se, and 77 percent of plaintiffs in divorce, custody and miscellaneous cases in Family Court are pro se.

Under the legislation, the DCBF would select projects proposed by legal services providers.

“An attorney can mean the difference between a roof over a tenant’s head and homelessness,” said Kirra Jarratt, DCBF executive director. “Expanding access to counsel through these projects shows the District of Columbia’s continued commitment to investing in justice.”

The bill also requires the DCBF to collaborate with key government entities in developing an annual plan for the provision of legal services.

“While an increase in resources will improve the legal landscape for low-income tenants, we also want to make sure that we collaborate in a meaningful way to provide high quality services that meet the needs of the community, and this bill does just that,” said Peter Edelman, chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission.

The legislation builds on the experiences of a number of other jurisdictions considering legal representation in various areas of law, including new programs in California, Massachusetts and New York.

“By creating civil right to counsel projects designed to help those District residents most unable to afford attorneys, we will be improving their housing conditions and keeping them in their homes,” McDuffie said. “This will, in turn, stem the loss of affordable housing in the city and ensure stable, safe, and accessible housing for all District residents.

“Ultimately, the goal is to move the District toward the establishment of a full right to counsel in all civil cases,” he said.

Sarafina Wright –Washington Informer Staff Writer

Sarafina Wright is a staff writer at the Washington Informer where she covers business, community events, education, health and politics. She also serves as the editor-in-chief of the WI Bridge, the Informer’s...

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