A group of Suffolk Law access-to-justice innovators, including several students, was invited by the White House and the Department of Justice to a virtual event celebrating law schools across the country that have taken concrete steps to avert what Senior Presidential Advisor and White House American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling called “the avoidable heartbreak” of eviction.
“With 97% [of people facing eviction] lacking access to an attorney, it is heartbreaking to think of the devastation, the downward cycles, the loss of economic dignity, and even homelessness, that often takes place in our country, without any effort to prevent it—for small amounts of funds”—just $500 to $600, Sperling said during the January 28 event.
He credited the law schools in the audience with helping prevent a predicted “tsunami of evictions,” which would have exacerbated the country’s already severe affordable housing crisis.
Attorney General Merrick Garland thanked law schools for developing “new digital platforms designed to ensure that housing court proceedings could be carried out fairly. You assisted your clients and your communities at a time when they need it the most—when our country needed it the most.”
One of those digital-solution creators in the audience was Suffolk Law Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Lab Clinical Fellow Quinten Steenhuis. A White House fact sheet shared during the event highlighted Steenhuis’ Turbo Tax-style web and mobile app for people facing eviction. In the same way that tax preparation apps walk users through technical documents, Steenhuis’ tool takes citizens step by step through the required court forms.
Thousands turn to eviction moratorium app
In early September 2020, soon after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced its eviction moratorium order, the school’s LIT Lab launched another mobile phone smart tool used by thousands across the country to determine if they qualified for eviction relief and to produce customized letters for their landlords. The New York Times featured the tool in its primer, “The New Eviction Moratorium: What You Need to Know.”
Soon after Massachusetts courts were largely closed to the public because of the pandemic, the LIT Lab quickly convened a team of volunteers from five continents to build a full suite of smart court forms, such as stay of eviction requests. The speed of Suffolk’s “smartform” approach became all the more apparent when one tenant was able to stop an eviction in progress from their home, with a constable at the door.
The smartforms project was a collaboration with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Access to Justice Commission COVID-19 Task Force, and was staffed by volunteers, including students and employees from legal aid and educational organizations, among others.
Legal assistance, at scale
As the Delta variant began sweeping through the US in the summer of 2021, Attorney General Garland asked law schools and attorneys to marshal their resources to address the risk of a spike in evictions and challenges in accessing the court system. Suffolk Law’s Dean Andrew Perlman was among a group of deans from 99 law schools who issued a statement of support and committed to take immediate and meaningful action.
Perlman has been an outspoken supporter of innovations that increase the ability of low- and average-income people to afford legal help, building a multifaceted legal technology program and championing the creation of automated, AI tools that provide eviction relief assistance and other emergency legal help at a scale not possible through pro bono efforts alone.
The impact of so many millions facing legal crises without legal help is far-reaching, according to Garland. “We know that without equal access to justice, tenants are evicted, families are fractured, innocent people go to jail, jobs are lost, veterans are left helpless, immigrants are left homeless, consumers lose protection, debtors lose recourse, children lose support, and domestic violence victims lose safety,” he said.
“I called on you, as members of the legal community, to use your skills or education, your experience or your time to help the most vulnerable among us,” Garland said. “Today, we are celebrating the way in which you answered the call.”