|Local News — Survey faults county courts' handling of eviction |
|APARTMENT WATCH BY ED SACKS |
The Chicago Sun Times (01/25/04)
There are "problematic trends" in the Cook County eviction courts, concludes a joint report from the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing, a Chicago non-profit legal services agency, and a survey team from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
The report, "No Time for Justice," claims that typical eviction hearings last less than two minutes, that less than 5 percent of tenants have a lawyer, that judges ignore the basic procedural requirements for a hearing and that tenants are unable to effectively use tenants' rights laws. It also reports that almost half the tenants sued for eviction fail to come to court. The report is based on the observation of 763 eviction cases heard at the Daley Center courts out of 35,799 filed in 2002.
"There seem to be systemic problems in eviction court," said Kathy Clark, executive director of LCBH. "We need some fundamental structure changes so that tenants can get a fair hearing." Her agency sponsors an eviction court program using private practice lawyers volunteering their time to help tenants.
The real estate industry and the lawyers who represent landlords are responding quietly. One top landlord lawyer said trials were the right length since most tenants have no defense and the hearing should be quick and routine. Jennifer Maley, director of communications for the Chicago Association of Realtors, said the issues in the report were matters for the courts, and not property managers.
"We believe any changes should be proposed from the chief judge, and not our association," she said. "We would oppose measures that would detract from the fairness and efficiency of the present court practices, and we would oppose changes that would increase property taxes."
Timothy Evans, chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, said, "We want to protect the rights of both tenants and landlords." Evans was receptive to the recommendations in the report. "I want to implement as many of the reasonable suggestions they made as quickly as possible. We want to make certain that every case is one that addresses the needs of the litigants before the judge."
Evans said he will add a second jury courtroom and would make sure all judges who preside over evictions will be given new written guidelines, called bench books. Evans also said that notices would be posted near each eviction courtroom informing tenants of the Chicago- Kent legal help desk at the Daley Center.
Evans placed part of the burden for results in the courts on the tenants' lack of knowledge of the laws, and a lack of lawyers helping tenants. He suggested the legal community increase its efforts in educating landlords and tenants.
This is the third survey of the Daley Center eviction courts in 30 years to say that judges sacrifice fairness and justice for efficiency.
As a result of the first two reports, the City of Chicago, the Cook County Circuit Court and private and not-for-profit agencies have poured millions of dollars into training and resources for landlords, tenants and judges. Almost 100,000 tenants have been advised through the Metropolitan Tenants Organization Hot Line. In the past two years, a landlords' hotline, operated by the Chicagoland Apartment Association, has received 6,000 calls.
Community Investment Corp. has trained more than 3,000 landlords in 12-hour courses heavily weighted in legal information. LCBH, and Chicago-Kent, through its Daley Center legal clinic, have aided thousands of tenants who were facing eviction. The Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago produces and provides judges with an up-to- date bench book.
Landlord and tenant groups hold monthly meetings with the assistance of the city's Department of Housing to coordinate educational information and training for landlords, tenants and elected officials. The group's Rents Right phone hotline has received more than 30,000 calls in the past four years, and tens of thousands of informational brochures have been distributed.
Harold Krent, dean of Chicago-Kent, supervised the study. "The real problem remains that the system is degrading to the tenants," he said.
Lawrence Wood, author of the eviction court bench book and a supervising housing lawyer with LAFC, said there must be more lawyers for tenants. "If there is a need for change, it is to ensure that tenants obtain legal representation" he said.
Wood said there are many unrepresented tenants who have valid defenses, but do not know how to present them. The Chicago-Kent report claims that even when tenants presented a case against eviction, they lost their case almost every time.
Wood said he has lost only seven cases out of hundreds in 13 years when his cases were transferred for a jury trial.
Answering the charge that eviction courts favor expediency, Evans said, "Justice is far more important than just court efficiency.
"Court efficiency is a means to an end, but the end has to be justice," he said. "What I am suggesting to you is that my order to the eviction court judges at the Daley Center are that every case is to receive the respect that case is entitled to receive with justice as the ultimate goal."
Krent agreed with Evans regarding tenant education. "Tenants need to be appraised earlier or more effectively about how to successfully use the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance," or else the law needs to be changed, Krent said.
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