Written by Lynn Bechtol
Responsive Law testified this week at a District of Columbia Council hearing regarding a proposed bill to expand funds for legal service providers representing low-income DC tenants in housing matters. Responsive Law supports the bill's spirit and objectives, but we expressed concerns that the limits imposed in the bill's text will stifle innovation in the provision of types of legal services available to the public.
The bill's aspirational goals are noble and sorely needed – studies indicate that only 3% of tenants in DC Housing Courts have access to counsel, and this shortcoming has extreme and far-reaching consequences for tens of thousands of Washingtonians. Responsive Law wholeheartedly supports any legislative attempt to increase the accessibility of legal assistance and representation, particularly for low-income individuals and families.
However, both the bill itself and the other testifying witnesses failed to address the reality that legal needs come in a wide range of forms, only some of which necessitate full and formal representation by a Bar-certified attorney. The bill's text limits groups eligible to receive funding to particular types of nonprofits and law school clinics – eliminating the possibility of funding for novel approaches by other organizations.
Of the 29 witnesses who testified before the Council, only Responsive Law addressed the importance of innovation in the legal services market. Every other witness—most of whom represented nonprofits and clinics that would see increased funding if the bill is passed—focused their testimony on the scope of the problem and the good works done by their organizations, specifically by lawyers. Without doubt, lawyers provide invaluable assistance in legal housing matters. However, a number of jurisdictions across the country now offer alternatives to traditional representation, including New York City's Navigator Program and Washington State's LLLT Program.
Furthermore, as Responsive Law Board Member Fritz Mulhauser testified, in even the most halcyon vision of the future legal services market, "lawyers will remain a scarce good." He raised the uncontroverted fact that, if the proposed bill is given a (wildly optimistic) budget of "$1-2 million per year," such a budget could "sustain at most a few dozen new attorneys." Given the scope of the problem, this will certainly be insufficient. It is therefore imperative that legislation addressing this issue both encourage creativity by service providers and leave room for previously unimagined approaches.
You can read the full text of Responsive Law's testimony to the DC City Council on this proposed legislation here.
UPDATED, 11/03/16: In response to the bill's lackluster approach to innovation in the provision of legal services, on November 3, 2016 Responsive Law submitted supplementary testimony regarding the bill. This supplementary testimony suggests specific proposed amendments that will address the bill's shortcomings through two types of significant revisions.
First, the amendments proposed by Responsive Law will expand the class of providers eligible for funding to allow innovative approaches by any group or provider capable of offering "effective assistance" - not just by lawyers and law school clinics. By opening the the door to a wider range of applicants representing a wider range of approaches, the amended bill would be better suited to meet the needs of a wider range of individuals.
Second, the amendments would increase the program's capacity and obligation to learn from the variations on effective assistance permitted under the bill. Given the extreme and ongoing shortage of legal aid available to indigent communities, only continued study and innovation will enable the bill to fulfill its goal of improving access to justice among low-income Washingtonians.
You can read the supplemental testimony submitted by Responsive Law here.
Lynn Bechtol is a Responsive Law Legal Fellow.