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JUSTICE OF THE PEACE COURT SPEARHEADS EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM FOR SELF-REPRESENTED LANDLORDS AND TENANTS

     In the civil division of the Justice of the Peace Court, nearly every case has at least one self-represented litigant. With over 33,000 civil cases filed annually in the Court, there is a tremendous need for assistance to these litigants. This is particularly true for landlord/tenant cases which represent about one-half of all civil cases and in which the stakes may include the displacement of a person from their home. To help these self-represented landlords and tenants, the Justice of the Peace Court has initiated a pilot outreach program, “Seminars for the Self-represented in Landlord/Tenant Issues”, which presents interactive programs monthly.

     Members of the private bar, nonprofit legal assistance providers, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the Justice of the Peace Court and others volunteer to plan, prepare and conduct the seminars. Apartment complex managers cooperate to provide a meeting room and distribute invitations to each tenant. AOC staffers prepare flyers and service the event and the court organizes the event. The program is conducted by a judge with two attorneys, one presenting a landlord perspective, the other the tenants’, to review the landlord/tenant code and impress upon the attendees the obligation of good faith dealing. Volunteers distribute seminar materials, take notes and help attendees complete questionnaires.

     Participants are further schooled in preparation for trial on a variety of potential issues, which also eases the trial court’s burden. Describing trial as “show and tell time”, presenters not only instruct on presentation of witnesses and evidence, but also rehearsal, demeanor and focus. Case specific questions arise and potential litigants are advised to seek guidance from an attorney. But much of the presentation is information which, if heeded, will prevent actions which might lead to litigation. Considerations before entering a lease or first occupying a rental unit, an understanding not only of rights but obligations, and remedies if the other party breaches a duty or obligation, are core issues discussed.

     “This is an amazing cooperative effort bringing landlords and tenants into a room to explain their duties, one to the other. Advocates of one side are not only presenting a perspective but are also learning another perspective in a non-adversarial exchange of ideas,” reflects Chief Magistrate Alan G. Davis.

     “Our court, in adjudicating scores of thousands of actions brought by or defended by the self-represented must and will assure that justice is done,” Davis continued. “This educational program is one tool that we will use to help assure that litigants have a meaningful voice. If it proves cost-effective and successful, we will expand it. That will require more volunteer attorneys and judges. The communities that we have reached are overwhelmingly receptive. We need to reach more”.

This article was written by Judge James Tull. Judge Tull is a Justice of the Peace and was instrumental in establishing the seminars for self-represented landlords and tenants.

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