Councilwoman María Quiñones Sánchez represents the residents of Philadelphia’s Seventh Councilmanic District. The district encompasses some of the poorest areas of the city of Philadelphia, including zip codes with poverty rates close to and even surpassing 50%, and as part of the First Congressional District it has the second-highest hunger rate in the nation.
As a lawyer and legislative aide in this City Council office, I regularly confront both the urgent human need for access to civil legal representation, and the current shortfall in access to such assistance. Our office is open to all residents, and thus we often see those who cannot find help from other sources. It is agonizing to sit with an abused woman who is struggling to navigate the child custody system, who clearly needs ongoing legal advice and representation but cannot afford it. Often we hear from the same people again and again; they know that we can only provide basic information and support regarding their unresolved legal issue, but do not know where else to turn. Although our office works hard to effectively match constituents with existing resources, although we cajole individual lawyers and organizations to stretch their capacity to take cases, and although we try to informally broker resolutions whenever possible – it is not nearly enough.
The absence of sufficient access to civil legal representation fosters fraud, abuse, and limits the ability of impoverished communities to build wealth. Without lawyers to assist with most estate and real property matters, in our district there is an epidemic of unauthorized deed transfers and countless properties with increasingly “tangled” title. Homebuyers who fall prey to forged deeds or rent-to-own scams are frequently on their own to try to get legal redress, and are unable to master the complex procedural requirements of Common Pleas Court – a common problem in a City where 22% of adults cannot read at an elementary school level and fully over half of adults are “low- literate.” I saw one quiet title case with two unrepresented litigants that was in court for over a year; in the end, due to mutual confusion, the case was determined “settled” with the forged deed still in place and continuing to obstruct marketability of the property. Business and lending disputes are also commonly dealt with outside the law, allowing illegal contracts to flourish and limiting small-business growth.
Because economic abuses below a certain scale are typically not prosecuted by the state Attorney General and the local District attorney’s office, the civil legal system is generally the only possible source of redress for those losses. In Philadelphia, over the years that minimum threshold has officially or unofficially moved between $25,000 and $50,000. In a city where fully 1/4 of all households make less than $15,000 per year, very many residents are effectively unprotected. As former longtime District Attorney Lynne Abraham testified to City Council in 2006, about many victims of economic crimes, “Their only recourse is civil lawsuits or just to accept their loss.”
In this vacuum, many of our constituents fall prey to non-lawyers, like notaries (or “notarios”) and so-called expeditors, who charge for quasi-legal services and often target our non-English speaking Puerto Rican or immigrant population. These non-lawyers may mishandle cases, as I have seen with some immigration claims that were fatally prejudiced due to inaccurate advice having been provided.
Councilwoman Sánchez, with her legislative colleagues, has supported a range of approaches to bridging this gap in access to civil legal representation. At a time when CDBG and HOME funds have suffered sharp annual decreases, she is advocating for new funding to Community Legal Services, as well as for preserving City funding for VIP’s “tangled title” work that uses private pro bono lawyers. Our office assisted in establishing a “Landlord Tenant Help Desk” at Municipal Court, where a large proportion of tenants are unrepresented and too often do not know their legal rights, creating an unbalanced playing field. We encouraged and continue to fund Philadelphia’s nationally- recognized mortgage foreclosure diversion program, which uses housing counselors to supplement lawyers in assisting homeowners facing foreclosure. We have been pursuing the possibility of expanding a similar hybrid lawyer-counselor model to help homeowners facing property tax debt.
We need all stakeholders working together to continue to expand these efforts, to both increase funding for full representation and to innovate approaches that allow for us to have the widest possible impact. As a country, state, and city, we cannot afford in either economic or human terms to allow whole communities to continue to exist largely outside of our civil legal system.
Jennifer Kates, Esq.
Office of Councilwoman María Quiñones Sánchez
7th District of Philadelphia