Access to Justice in “Lawyerless” Housing Courts: A Discussion of Potential Systemic and Judicial Reforms

By Gabe Siegel

“Housing courts—and lawyerless courts more broadly—are broken.  Only one side has access to lawyers.  And given the institutional expertise, strategic knowledge, and unfair use of procedure that housing court lawyers bring, only one side has genuine access to justice.  By changing the ways in which judges interact with pro se and represented litigants, reform can provide access to justice to all parties in housing court.  Judicial reforms would decrease delay, elicit more facts, inject due process and procedural fairness into proceedings, and minimize bias.  The most important of these reforms is active judging, including procedural reform, evidentiary reform, and easier access to hearings.  As the effects of the active reforms taken by Alaska District Court Judge Washington indicate, the reforms are simple to implement and quickly make a tangible impact.  More broadly, reforms would benefit pro se litigants and the judicial system as a whole: it is ‘more effective to train one judge on how to assist a self-represented litigant than to teach hundreds of [litigants] how to be lawyers.’  It is an ‘essential democratic goal’ that the court system work fairly for all.  Reforming judging in lawyerless housing courts helps it do just that.”

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