“As long as the vast majority of people facing eviction, debt collection, violence in their relationships, employment issues, and other life-changing legal problems are alone in the courtroom, we don’t have a fair and just legal system,” said Councilmember Allen.
In the District of Columbia, outdated regulations prevent D.C. government lawyers from providing pro bono services to the public in almost all cases. Considering more than 90 percent of residents appear pro se – without an attorney – in probate, domestic violence, landlord-tenant, and housing conditions cases at the D.C. Superior Court. This disparity almost guarantees an unequal outcome for lower-income residents and a missed opportunity to use the resources of capable, local attorneys to move closer to a fair and just legal system.
D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6), along with eight of his colleagues, has introduced the Pro Bono Legal Representation Expansion Amendment Act of 2021 to allow barred attorneys who work for the D.C. government to offer pro bono services in District and federal agencies and courts, with certain conflict of interest protections.
The bill will expand access to justice by helping more lower-income residents secure competent representation when they otherwise would not be able to afford to do so.
In the context of the Council weighing how to scale back the current eviction moratorium in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is highly likely that thousands of District residents will find themselves fighting eviction proceedings without any support – a challenge this bill could help overcome.
“As long as the vast majority of people facing eviction, debt collection, violence in their relationships, employment issues, and other life-changing legal problems are alone in the courtroom, we don’t have a fair and just legal system,” said Councilmember Allen. “All too often, successful outcomes in our legal system depend on who can afford a lawyer and navigate a very complicated process. The right to counsel exists in criminal cases, but it doesn’t in civil cases. This bill takes a simple, yet important step in the right direction toward a full right to counsel in civil cases by expanding pro bono opportunities and recognizing all the skills the District’s attorneys have to offer.”
The bill was crafted in consultation with the Washington Council of Lawyers, the District’s public-interest bar association and a leader in advancing access to justice in the legal system, with a careful eye toward including protections for conflict of interest circumstances.
In 2017, Councilmember Allen worked with his colleagues on the Council to create and fund the D.C. Bar Foundation’s Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program, which provides legal representation to District residents in eviction cases. At the time, more than 9 out of 10 landlords were represented by counsel, compared to fewer than one in 10 tenants. He has continued to champion funding for civil legal services, increasing the District’s budget for access to justice grants every year during his time as Chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
The bill was co-introduced by Council Chair Phil Mendelson, and Councilmembers Mary Cheh, Christina Henderson, Janeese Lewis George, Kenyan McDuffie, Brianne Nadeau, Brooke Pinto, and Robert White, Jr.