The Free Library and access to justice

Many Philadelphians are unable to get help with legal questions involving housing, health, access to benefits, family matters, and other basic needs. A new report from the Sheller Center suggests that the Free Library could play a significant role in narrowing this “justice gap,” which disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.

In A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice, students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic report on innovative ways in which libraries around the country are helping patrons connect with legal information, forms, apps, court web sites, “help centers” and nonprofit organizations, and other sources of assistance. The report suggests ways in which the Free Library could provide a similar service here.

As the report notes, the Library is well suited to perform this role. It has branches across the city as well as a user-friendly website to which legal information could easily be added. Much of the information that patrons need, moreover, is now available electronically. While there’s work to be done to sort out what’s useful from what’s not, the Library would not need to buy expensive new books or subscriptions; instead, the task would be to assemble and curate existing resources, and to provide training and guidance to library staff.  Philadelphia has a strong public-interest and pro bono legal community that could partner in such an effort (and perhaps in creating a more extensive “lawyer in the library” program as well).

The report was developed by Access to Justice Clinic students Alex Burns, David Frias and Basmah Raja.

New report: reducing “evictions by default”

Over half of all “legal” evictions in Philadelphia are based on default judgments entered against tenants who have not appeared at their eviction hearings. In these situations, the Court hears from only one side — the landlord — and typically enters a judgment for back rent and eviction in accordance with the landlord’s request. Eviction follows within a few weeks.

By contrast, when both parties are present, the Court tries to help the parties negotiate a settlement. If that can’t be achieved, the judge hears the tenant’s side of the story, as well as the landlord’s, before making a decision.

A new report, “Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court,” addresses some of the reasons that defaults make up such a big part of the Court’s docket. The report is based on the work of students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic. Through observations, interviews, and a review of several hundred court records, the students identified  problems with the Court’s operations that, if addressed, could bring the default numbers down.

Some tenants apparently do not appear because they do not get notice of their hearings, or do not understand the notice they received, which is written in complex legal terms (nearly all tenants are unrepresented). Other tenants do not know, since the notice does not tell them, that they can request a change of their hearing date if they have an unmanageable conflict such as a medical procedure. And there are other issues, including the startling fact that the courthouse is barely marked, so that some people miss their hearings simply because they can’t find the building.

Much of the students’ research predated the pandemic and the current moratorium on evictions. But the findings and recommendations are all the more timely now, given the backlog of cases that advocates fear will result in “mass evictions” later this year. The report urges that, as the Court plans for reopening, it take every possible step to ensure that its own procedures do not contribute to the occurrence of “evictions by default.”

The students whose work contributed to the report were Sarah Kim Eisenhard, Alice Elmer, Kevin Kulesza, Xavier O’Connor, Ranjani Sarode, and Julia Sheppard.