Detroit Extends Right to Counsel to Persons Facing Eviction
Have you heard about the “Civil Gideon” movement? Thanks to efforts of grassroots activists and legal advocates dotted across the nation, the years-long movement to affirm a right to counsel for indigents facing eviction and foreclosure has begun to pick up steam.
Last week, my hometown of Detroit added itself to the list of jurisdictions codifying this right to counsel, in recognition of the stark trends of inequity amongst landlords and tenants in accessing civil representation, as well as the significant detrimental impacts of housing instability and homelessness on low-income populations.
Detroit City Council voted unanimously to amend Chapter 22 of the Detroit City Code, affirming a right to free counsel at 36th District Court for qualifying low-income occupants in all eviction cases and other housing-related civil proceedings which threaten occupancy. The amendment states that this change will serve city residents at large by “promoting the public health, safety, general welfare, security, prosperity, and contentment of all inhabitants of the city of Detroit.”
As public defenders, we are intimately aware of the indifference and brutality of the court system for those with no choice but to represent themselves. We have also seen how a single eviction or foreclosure can imperil an entire family, and the myriad desperate measures and impossible situations that can lead someone straight from eviction court to criminal court. With the realities of mass eviction and foreclosure all around us, it is energizing and inspiring to imagine a future in which a right to counsel in housing proceedings has become the standard practice.
Detroit may have been the latest to make the shift, but they follow in the footsteps of several other jurisdictions in recent years. Here is a non-exhaustive list of places that have made this vision a reality: New York City, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Newark, Louisville, San Francisco, New Orleans, Denver, as well as the States of Washington, Maryland, and Connecticut.
Is the movement for Civil Gideon gaining traction in your jurisdiction? And as we work to expand standard practices of right to counsel in the legacy of the Gideon decision, how do we ensure that advocates are well-trained, sufficiently and sustainably resourced, and fully empowered to provide the zealous representation our communities truly deserve?