Court–Based Legal Services Project

The Court–Based Legal Services Project (also known as the "Attorney of the Day" Project), based in the Landlord–Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court, is run jointly by the Legal Aid Society of D.C. and Bread for the City to provide same–day representation to low–income tenants facing eviction. Project attorneys also provide ongoing representation for clients who need help beyond that day in court. Legal Aid and Bread launched the Project in 2007 in response to an overwhelming need: while over 90 percent of landlords in eviction cases are represented by counsel, only 3 percent of tenants have attorneys.[1] The Project is making a small dent in this imbalance, with its attorneys serving over 2,000 individuals or families since 2007.

Tenants with cases in Landlord–Tenant Court first are referred to the Landlord Tenant Resource Center, a pro se information center at the courthouse run by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. The Resource Center screens cases to identify income–eligible tenants who have matters in court that day and then refers those cases to the Project. Legal Aid and Bread staff the Project office on alternate days, typically sending two or three attorneys to court each day.

During calendar year 2010, the Project provided same–day representation to tenants and their families in over 600 cases. These services can include everything from helping a tenant stay a writ of restitution or vacate a default judgment to continuing a case for time to consult with counsel to dismissing a case or reaching a settlement agreement. Project attorneys also provide ongoing representation to hundreds of tenants every year. About one–third of the tenants served resolve their case through the Project's same–day representation. For the remaining tenants, the Project successfully places approximately two–thirds of the cases for extended representation, either through the participating organizations or through referrals.

Although the courthouse office is located in downtown D.C., far from many clients' homes, the Project draws in tenants from all parts of the city. In 2010, more than 65% of the tenants served were from the District's poorest Wards (5, 6, 7, and 8). A significantly higher percentage of clients from these wards come through the courthouse office than Legal Aid's main Northwest office, even though both are downtown and only a mile apart.

Judges, mediators, court personnel, and even opposing counsel often refer tenants who present a particular need for representation because of disability, limited English proficiency, age, or other factors. Both organizations employ bilingual staff and work closely with a Community Legal Interpreter Bank to secure interpreter services. Project attorneys also are trained for and experienced at working with individuals with disabilities.

The Project's presence in the courthouse also allows it to monitor emerging issues with a particular landlord, landlord's attorney, or particular property and coordinate a response. Attorneys track new case filings and conduct outreach to tenants in particular types of cases, including those living in foreclosed properties. Project attorneys also participate on court committees and in ongoing discussions about changes to court operations and other systemic issues.

  1. D.C. Access to Justice Commission, Justice for All? An Examination of the Civil Legal Needs of the District of Columbia's Low-Income Community 76 (2008).