The Delaware Supreme Court established a new policy that allows non-lawyers — in this case, approved Qualified Tenant Advocates — to represent tenants in eviction court. This is only for residential tenants (not commercial ones).

Usually, only licensed lawyers are allowed to represent tenants in the Delaware eviction courts, called Justice of the Peace Court. Landlords could be permitted to be represented by licensed advocates (non-lawyers) as well.

Delaware is going to provide Qualified Tenant Advocates for free to tenants. These advocates will be trained by legal aid lawyers. See this information from Delaware Public Media:

The advocate may prosecute or defend eviction cases, engage in settlement negotiations, file pleadings and other documents, and appear in the Justice of the Peace Court with the tenant’s consent.

But John Whitelaw, Advocacy Director for the Community Legal Aid Society, says it will be months before the Qualified Tenant Advocates will be in action.

“So sometime between a few months and the end of the year. We do not have a firm timeline. People have to be hired for this so we have to develop a training program, we have to hire staff, we have to train them, and then folks can begin to go to court so it’s not going to be a snap your fingers quick process,” said Whitelaw

Whitelaw praises the Delaware Supreme Court for taking this step, but adds it isn’t an end all to solve the eviction crisis in Delaware.

ACLU Delaware legal director Susan Burke said this is a good first step toward giving tenants a fair shake.

“The situation to date has been extremely unfair. 86% of landlords having representation in the proceedings 2% of tenants. That is just an extraordinary imbalance and so we really need to work hard on adjusting that and ensuring that no tenant is unrepresented when they are at risk of losing their home,” said Burke.

She adds she would like to see more done on this issue and points to Senate Bill 101, which would establish a right to counsel in landlord-tenant cases.

That bill is currently in the Delaware House awaiting action.

Other states can consider relaxing the rules that typically prevent non-lawyers from giving advice or representation to tenants — especially when there are few available housing attorneys. This is typically a change to legal ethical rules, which prohibit ‘unauthorized practice of law’ by people without an active legal license from the state bar.

Read more about the debate in Delaware about how to respond to the eviction crisis here.

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