Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the White House-Justice Department Convening with Law Schools: A Call to Action for Access to Justice

1 year ago
AMERICA NEWS NOW

Remarks as Delivered

Thank you so much, Gene [Sperling]. I want to join the Attorney General and Deputy Secretary Adeyemo in thanking all of the law students, their deans and clinical instructors for answering the Attorney General’s call to action.  The impact you have had on your communities and on the lives of so many is inspiring.  And the infrastructure you have built to respond to the Attorney General’s call will prove critical as the Justice Department continues to work to increase access to justice for all Americans.

The pandemic exacerbated an existing eviction and housing crisis across our country. Over three million people were displaced in a typical year. The lifting of the CDC’s eviction moratorium and other state and local moratoria across the country only made the problem worse by removing a vital lifeline for many households.

I view the housing crisis as a racial and gender justice issue because of the disproportionate effect the spike in evictions will have on women and people of color.  It’s a poverty and economic security issue because of the long-lasting effects that we know evictions have on families. And, as the CDC has made clear, it’s also a public health issue because of the risk of community spread of COVID-19. 

As the Attorney General discussed, for the Justice Department, addressing the housing situation is also a critical part of the department’s reinvigorated commitment to increasing access to justice for every American and to reduce the barriers and entrenched disparities in our civil legal systems. 

We know that losing one’s home can have catastrophic economic and psychological consequences on a family. 

This is why, since last spring, the department has been spearheading an effort to promote the use of court-based eviction diversion strategies.

Eviction diversion programs encourage landlords and tenants to resolve disputes without formal litigation. Studies have consistently shown that these programs can significantly increase the likelihood families can remain in their home.  

As the Chief Justice Mary McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court has said, eviction diversion are a “win-win-win.” They help tenants stay in their homes. They help landlords obtain resolve their complaints and access rental assistance funds. And they make courts more efficient and they increase access to justice.

In June, I sent a letter to state court chief justices and court administrators around the country to urge them to implement eviction diversion strategies. The letter highlighted the kinds of actions that some courts had already taken in hopes that it would inspire other courts to follow. 

For example, I suggested that courts consider requiring landlords to apply for rental assistance before filing for eviction, as courts had done in Pennsylvania; I urged courts to think about staying pending eviction cases for a period of time to allow litigants to apply for rental assistance, as the Michigan Supreme Court had done; and I recommended that courts consider modifying form summonses, and court notices to alert litigants to rental assistance as the Texas Supreme Court had done.

Over the longer term, I encouraged courts to build out more comprehensive programs that might include access to counsel. 

We know that providing legal counsel to tenants can make an enormous impact on the resolution of eviction cases. For example, a study of Cleveland, Ohio’s right to counsel program showed that in cases where a legal aid attorney was able to represent a tenant, 93% were able to avoid eviction or an involuntary move.

I am incredibly gratified that, since last summer, many states have begun to implement diversion programs in their own court systems.

In November, the Indiana Supreme Court announced the creation of a new program that will require local housing courts to inform landlords and tenants about the availability of rental assistance and mediation. 

The New Mexico Supreme Court recently announced that it is piloting that uses court-based facilitators to encourage early resolution of housing problems.

And in New Hampshire, a new court-based program is proactively encouraging tenants and landlords to meet before they reach the courthouse to resolve their disputes ahead of time. If that doesn’t work, mediators are available at the courthouse to encourage resolution and allow families to stay in their homes.

I am hopeful that more and more state courts will implement similar programs in the coming months. 

But these courts cannot do it alone. They need partners like the National Center for State Courts, which recently launched an Eviction Diversion Initiative that will provide funding to state courts to hire staff members and ensure the sustainability of eviction prevention programs.

And they need all of you – law students willing to step up and make a difference – to help make these programs work. While the network of legal services organizations around the country has been hard at work to keep people in their homes, the challenge has required all hands on deck, including law schools and law students. You’ve been critical to helping connect potential litigants with rental assistance programs, to mediating disputes, and if necessary, to representing the unrepresented in court. 

Thank you again for answering the Attorney General’s call, and for the time and effort you have given to keep Americans in their homes. I filled my law school years doing as many clinics as I could because of the extraordinary experiences they gave me and the impact I wanted to try to have. It is no exaggeration to say that the work you have done and are doing has saved lives. I am inspired by your commitment and look forward to continuing to hear about the impact you will make on your communities and on our country. Please keep working for equal justice for all and stay hopeful. Thank you again.

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