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May 19, 2017 Dialogue

Why Courts Benefit from Partnerships with Pro Bono Legal Services

By Carolyn Gold

For the past 10 years, San Francisco Superior Court has partnered with two nonprofit organizations to provide self-represented litigants in unlawful detainers an “attorney of the day” at their mandatory settlement conferences. Prior to this project, called the Housing Negotiation Project, self-represented litigants (mostly tenant defendants) had to negotiate directly with the landlord attorney at their settlement conferences. While it is not clear that more cases settle under the program than before the program, agreements are fully negotiated and tenant defendants are more likely to follow the terms of the agreement. The Court does end up with far fewer litigants refusing to settle because “they want their day in court” since they have an attorney who can fully explain to the tenant the risks of trial versus settlement.

The project is staffed by volunteer attorneys who have received a two-hour training by a Supervising Attorney from the Justice and Diversity Center before volunteering. The volunteer gets free MCLE credits for the training and, in exchange, the volunteer agrees to come to settlement conferences four times in a six month period.

Settlement conferences take place two afternoons a week at the courthouse with dockets of between 10 and 15 cases on each day. Thus, to fully staff this project with volunteers, it is necessary to sell this project to mid to large size law firms as a way of doing pro bono service with a limited time commitment. The project heavily relies on law firms committing to staff a day each month for the project.

This project does require the Court’s buy-in for various pieces of the project:

  1. The Court must send out the settlement conference calendars in advance so that volunteer attorneys have time to run conflicts before their service date. Many conflicts departments can take up to five days to run conflicts on all of the cases.
  2. The Court provides a space for the volunteers to meet with their clients a half-hour before the settlement conference calendar begins.
  3. The Court provides a private space for the Supervising Attorney to be able to meet with the volunteer attorneys throughout the afternoon’s negotiation.
  4. The Court permits the use of its copy machine so that the litigants can leave the settlement conference with a copy of their agreement in hand.

The Court had its own demands for entering into this partnership. First, the Court required the project to provide a limited scope attorney to any self-represented tenant regardless of income. Second, the Court required that the project also provide limited scope attorneys to self-represented landlords. After some negotiation, the Court agreed that for self-represented landlords, we could limit our representation to landlords owning two units or less. The Court sends a notice with the time and place of trial and a settlement conference notice informing both plaintiffs and defendants of these services, and explains that if you are a self-represented plaintiff, you must call ahead to the Bar Association’s Justice and Diversity Center to obtain the services. Tenants do not have to make these prior arrangements.

This project has two nonprofit partners:  the Eviction Defense Collaborative, which provides pro per answers for defendants in unlawful detainer actions, and the Justice and Diversity Center, who train and recruit pro bono attorneys to provide legal services to low income litigants. The Eviction Defense Collaborative brings the tenants’ files to the Court on settlement conference day, which contains a detailed intake and the pleadings. They also make reminder calls to the tenants to show up for their settlement conference early to meet their volunteer attorney, and they run a workshop for the tenants at the Courthouse on the day of the settlement conference so they are prepared to meet with their attorney. The Eviction Defense Collaborative also sends one attorney to each settlement conference calendar to take limited scope cases.

The project is a holistic legal service and is staffed by one social service advocate and one rental assistance advocate. Many of the defendants are in need of social services or rental assistance, and without those services at the Court, reaching a negotiated settlement would be impossible. Many of the clients are under tremendous stress facing eviction in a city that has become too expensive to find alternative housing. Often the social work advocate will need to sit with such a client to keep them calm and focused on settlement, which allows the attorney to strategize on settlement and continue the negotiations.

Some might think that the plaintiff’s bar would be upset by the “interference” of pro bono attorneys who will not be going to trial if the case does not settle. However, most of the plaintiff’s bar speak highly of the project and are glad not to have to negotiate directly with a pro per defendant. They also believe that it makes the settlements that much more airtight because they were negotiated with both sides having an attorney.

Courts are constantly looking for ways of improving their access to justice. This collaborative project helps to even the playing field for pro per litigants.

Carolyn Gold

Senior Supervising Attorney, Justice and Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco

Carolyn Gold is the Senior Supervising Attorney of landlord-tenant pro bono projects for the Justice and Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco.