A Push for Legal Aid in Civil Cases Finds Its Advocates

Organizations like the Eviction Assistance Center in Los Angeles help, but free legal assistance in noncriminal cases is rare and growing rarer.

News Story (California, Massachusetts, NATIONAL)

Erik Eckholm, Ian Lovett
New York Times (NYT)
November 22, 2014
Link to the full story

Tags: Civil Right to Counsel, Information Centers, Language Access, Pro Bono, Pro Se/Self-Help

Organizations mentioned/involved: Legal Services Corporation (LSC), Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance (GBLA), Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA), National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC)


LOS ANGELES — Lorenza and German Artiga raised six children in a rent-controlled bungalow here, their only home since they moved from El Salvador 29 years ago.

So they were stunned this past summer when their landlord served them with eviction papers, claiming that their 12-year-old granddaughter Carolyn, whose mother was killed in a car crash in 2007, was an illegal occupant.

Up against a seasoned lawyer and bewildering paperwork, the couple, who speak little English and could never afford a lawyer, would very likely have been forced out of their home and the landlord could have raised the rent for new tenants.


But the Artigas were lucky. They traveled to the nearby county courthouse and joined the tense line that gathers most mornings outside the Eviction Assistance Center, a legal aid office in the same building as the housing court.


Free legal assistance in noncriminal cases is rare and growing rarer. A recent study in Massachusetts found that two-thirds of low-income residents who seek legal help are turned away. Nationally, important civil legal needs are met only about 20 percent of the time for low-income Americans, according to James J. Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, a federal agency that finances legal aid groups.


Before the Eviction Assistance Center was established at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in 2011, few tenants had lawyers, while most landlords did. Just helping tenants fill out responses to an eviction notice within the required five days has made a difference: Since 2011 the “default rate,” or share of cases that summarily result in evictions, has declined to 35 percent, from 50 percent, according to Cassandra Goodman, the center’s supervising lawyer.

As before, most cases are settled before trial. But more often now, the lawyers help tenants fend off landlords who are using pretexts to seek eviction so they can benefit from gentrification and rising rents, Ms. Goodman said.