Stanford Report on Right to Civil Counsel Shows Success of Leveraging Millions of Dollars of Pro Bono Assistance and Cost Savings to City

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu joined Stanford Law School’s Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law in releasing its report on San Francisco’s Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program.
In 2012, Supervisor Chiu sponsored legislation declaring San Francisco to be a right to civil counsel city, and spearheaded funding for a pilot program to provide free legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction.

“It is no surprise that the caring people of San Francisco would have supported the city becoming the first right to counsel city in the United States,” said James Brosnahan of Morrison & Foerster, one of the original advocates of the program. “There are 4.3 million Californians each year who go to court without a lawyer on issues which affect the relationship to their children, their housing, their credit and their medical care. San Francisco has a great program.”

The Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program was created with a $100,000 grant that funded a staff attorney at the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) of BASF. In partnership with the non-profit Eviction Defense Collaborative, JDC developed efficient systems for referral and placement of clients with attorneys.

“I am proud to report large law firms have stepped up to the challenge and are volunteering to represent low income San Francisco residents, thus saving hundreds of families from losing their homes,” announced JDC Board President Stephanie Skaff of Farella Braun + Martel.

“It is imperative that tenants who live in rent controlled units and subsidized housing retain their housing, and in order to do this, tenants need to have legal representation from the beginning of their cases,” said Carolyn Gold, Supervising Attorney with the Justice & Diversity Center. “For each tenant who is evicted from a rent-controlled unit or subsidized housing, this city loses its families, its artists, its food servers, its babysitters, it’s car mechanics, its teachers, and the city loses its rich diversity. These people will never return.”

The pilot program was created at a necessary time. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of eviction notices filed increased by 38%. The increase includes not only Ellis Act evictions, but also evictions related to owner-move-in, breach of lease, and termination of Section 8 cases. In 2013, 550 tenants lost their case simply because they didn’t respond to a lawsuit or appear in court to defend themselves. Of the tenants who did file a response and requested a jury trial, over 1,100 arrived at court without attorney representation.
More than half of the tenants responding to eviction lawsuits had incomes at 125% or less than the federal poverty level – $14,600 a year for one person or $29,800 for a family of four. Low-income tenants are especially vulnerable if they have physical or mental disabilities or language barriers for monolingual immigrants.

The Stanford report found that law firm participation in conjunction with legal services providers had a positive impact on cases requiring intensive resources, especially in full-scope representation of tenants in danger of losing their homes. Cost savings to the city are substantial as the city spends $30/night per sheltered individual, and the average stay at shelters for individuals is 60 nights.

The pilot program has leveraged $100,000 in initial funding into an estimated $2.12 million worth of pro bono legal services. It has played a critical role in meeting eviction defense needs for more than 600 tenants in a single year. Supervisor Chiu and other supporters of the Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program believe that funding for eviction defense must be increased by $700,000 to increase the capacity to serve the additional low-income individuals and families who are in need of eviction defense.

Get involved: For more information about Right to Civil Counsel program, email probono@sfbar.org.