What can a court do to mitigate the harms of an eviction?
Local and state court leaders have a large role in whether and how evictions happen. What kinds of programs can courts pilot, to prevent unlawful evictions and mitigate the harms evictions can have on landlords and tenants?
This page collects the various options that courts can take leadership around.
Eviction Diversion Programs
Courts can play a leading or supporting role in a local Eviction Diversion Program. Eviction Diversion Programs offer rental assistance, mediation, legal representation, and other social and housing services to tenants and to landlords. They encourage alternative dispute resolution, and aim to prevent the filing of a lawsuit or an eviction order against a tentant.
Read more on all of the options, best practices, and case studies around these initiatives at the Eviction Diversion Program page here.
Also, you can go through a Buzzfeed-style quiz from the National Center for State Courts’ Eviction Diversion Diagnostic Tool, to explore which kind of Eviction Diversion Program might be the best fit for your court and wider jurisdiction.
Court Data Gathering & Exchanges
Courts can better gather, track, and share data. This can improve the early delivery of services to prevent evictions and associated harms. This data work can also help policy-makers better spot trends in evictions, and make better rules, laws, and programs to get to fundamental solutions.
Some examples of data work that courts can do:
- Establish a data exchange with local service providers (like legal aid, social services, housing navigators, mediators, and/or Eviction Diversion Program leaders). Once an eviction action is filed, the court can make the public court record details available to these service providers. These providers can then promptly reach out to the litigants with offers of services, to help them resolve their dispute and get needed services.
- Track filings and outcomes to know what’s happening. This can include demographic information, zip code, and other location data about the landlord and the tenant, amount of rent in question, settlement terms, and other data. This can help policymakers know where evictions are happening, with what kinds of people involved, and with what kinds of outcomes.
See more from a New America-led coalition on Eviction Data recommendations, about what kinds of data to collect and how to set up safe, secure sharing of it.
Court Notices, Summons, and other Outreach
The official documents that come from the court to litigants are a key opportunity for help. They can make the process clear, or make it intimidating and confusing. They can direct people to resources, or make it hard to figure out what to do.
Courts can use good document design, and messaging strategies that nudge people to attend hearings and use services. See this example from the Hamilton County Courts in Ohio, in which a traditional eviction Summons was transformed through a collaborative design process with tenants, landlords, advocates, and court administrators. This work was led by the Stanford Legal Design Lab. If you would like to use this same Summons model, please be in touch to get the source file.
Court Procedure Changes to Slow down the docket
In many courts, evictions happen very quickly. In some cases, tenants have only a few days to respond to an eviction lawsuit. If they don’t formally answer the complaint, they never get a hearing in court.
This type of ‘fast’ court procedure (with tight deadlines, extra requirements on the defendant to get a hearing, no pre-trial conferences, and high rates of default) make it very hard to prevent an eviction judgment — even if a person has lawful defenses, or the chance to pay back-rent from rental assistance funds.
Slowing down the eviction court procedure, as recommended by the Department of Justice’s Assoc. Attorney General in June 2021, can play a crucial role in preventing evictions, and allowing other prevention services to succeed. It can also stop harmful eviction orders from coming onto people’s records.
Specific court procedure options include:
- Extend the time that Tenants have to respond to an eviction complaint filed against them. This can help give them more time to apply for services, get help paying rent, and engage in mediation to divert the case away from a trial and order.
- Put a case on a Slower Track while waiting for Rental Assistance. Many jurisdictions struggle to quickly respond to tenant and landlords’ applications for rental assistance. Rather than let a case about unpaid rent go to trial and judgment, instead, a court can delay the trial date until there is a decision about the rent assistance. See the state of Michigan’s order on slowing down the docket to await rental assistance help.
- Mandatory pre-trial conferences with the judge. Courts can take a stronger role in encouraging use of eviction diversion programs, settlement through mediation, and other solutions aside from going to trial. They can require all landlords and tenants to attend a meeting with the judge before the trial. This can let the judge and other court staff make sure both parties know their rights, the law, the services available to them, and the benefits of alternative disupte resolution.
- Require Landlords to file for Rental Assistance or use an Eviction Diversion Program before filing a lawsuit. Like in Philadelphia, these pre-filing requirements can ensure that all other avenues are exhausted before a landlord sues a tenant. This can help the parties get funding needed to cover the back-rent at the root of their dispute, or deal with other matters through the mediation of a new agreement.
- Raise the cost of filing for an eviction. Courts can set the filing fees, that determine how expensive it is to bring an action in court. Some jurisdictions have very low filing fees to bring an eviction action, making it attractive for landlords to use a lawsuit as a collection means. Even if the landlord doesn’t actually want to evict the tenant, but rather wants to ensure they get paid rent, the lawsuit process is cheap enough to be used for collections. If courts raise the cost of filing, this can discourage the over-use of the court system as a means of collections.
Court Technology Outreach & Self-Help
Courts can improve litigants’ legal capability and empowerment by having a strong technology plan. This includes for communicating with landlords and tenants about court details. It also covers providing self-help materials in convenient, digital channels (as well as in-person and paper-based help).
- Text message reminders. Courts should be collecting cell phone numbers for litigants, and then sending automated reminders for deadlines around paper filing requirements, hearing dates and locations, and other key procedural points they need to know and follow through on. Text message reminders have been proven very effective in increasing participation in court proceedings.
- Self-help website from the court on the Eviction Process. Every local and state court should have a public-facing website page with self-help resources. This includes the basic contact details of the court, where to come to, how to prepare for a hearing or case conference, and what to expect on during one’s case. It should also provide step-by-step guides, FAQ answers, and other self-help material to support those without lawyers to navigate the process on their own. This website should be technically modern, with a user-friendly design, and optimized for SEO so that it appears high on search results. See more at Stanford’s Legal Help Dashboard on how to set up an effective self-help website. Visit Cincinnati’s Eviction help website from the Hamilton County Courts for an example of an effective self-help court website for eviction.
Collaborative Housing Courts
Judges and court administrators can change how eviction trials are run, courtrooms are set up, and what kinds of professionals are in the room during a hearing.
Just as there have been collaborative and problem-solving courts in other areas of the law — like for homeless, veterans, mental health, and other areas — there can be similar models for eviction and housing.
- Train judges to manage the landlord-tenant docket with social awareness and cultural competencies. Judges can be educated in the ramifications of evictions (like around health, education, mental health, domestic violence, and equity). They can also be educated in landlord-tenant and fair housing law (in case they are not already specialized in this area). In addition, they can be supported to know how proactive they can be in a court hearing, especially when there is a power imbalance between parties and high stakes for the outcome. These types of training can ensure that the hearing is respectful to all parties, oriented towards problem-solving, ensuring that the law is followed, and that all parties are empowered and have a sense of procedural justice.
- Have protocol to refer litigants to social services, and have follow up through status conferences. This can allow judges or other court officers to bring in holistic community support services to address the root problems around finances, mental health, domestic violence, or other issues at play in the eviction dispute. It has the judges more closely supervising what happens in the dispute and in the outcomes — to help guide the parties towards housing stability.
- Some courts, like in Lousiville, have a dedicated social service provider in the eviction hearings, to ensure that litigants have signed up for all possible programs and to advise the judge on what other resources might be possible. This other professional can ensure that the process is more holistic and focused on getting stable housing and good social outcomes for the litigants involved.
- The judge also can take a proactive role in the hearing. This can be through ensuring that both parties know their rights, understand any stipulations they are making, have applied for all related services, and are using any defenses or protections (like the CDC Eviction Moratorium) they might have. This can also be through the judge reaching out to tenants who have failed to appear, by calling them and determining if they can participate via telephone to ensure that they do not default and that they make full use of the hearing.