“[E]ven if you know all your rights and you are 100% on the right side of the law, it’s not really going to matter if your landlord has four attorneys and you show up in court against them, right? Even if you get a Legal Aid lawyer, like bless them, they’re doing the Lord’s work, but you know, they’re just out gunned. So, in terms of the legal system . . . [it’s] woefully inadequate . . . .”
— Tom, Tenant Organizer
In the United States, the civil legal system is underfunded and overwhelmed.
There is no constitutional right to legal representation in civil courts.
Nevertheless, the Charter of the Organization of American States contains rights to civil legal aid.
Moreover, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have found that full protection of human rights requires states to guarantee adequate access to counsel and civil legal aid.
Notwithstanding such directives, in 2017, low-income Americans received limited or no legal help for more than one million eligible civil legal problems, even after seeking help from legal aid organizations.
The vast majority of these problems (85–97%) remained unaddressed because legal aid organizations lacked available resources.
Signaling the extent and severity of this problem, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2021 ranked the United States 41 out of 139 countries with respect to the access and affordability of civil courts.
As the opening epigraph suggests, even while civil legal attorneys are “doing the Lord’s work,” they contend with resource deficiencies that leave them “outgunned.”
In the face of these limitations, grassroots organizations emerge as fundamental institutions that navigate within the civil legal system and push for change outside of it.
These community-based organizations work to expand civil legal rights, provide support to people with civil legal problems, and build power within racially and economically marginalized communities.
This Essay examines the ways that local tenant organizations engage the civil legal system. Though tenant groups do not primarily focus on legal aid, the people they organize face housing problems that are marked by clear legal dimensions.
As such, tenant organizations operate in relation to courts, lawyers, and the law.
This Essay demonstrates the five main mechanisms through which tenant organizations engage the civil legal system: (1) partnerships and collaborations with lawyers and legal organizations, (2) the provision of court support to tenants in need, (3) oversight of court processes, (4) interaction with court and government officials, and (5) direct action to disrupt court practices and outcomes. Identifying and understanding these mechanisms advances knowledge of an important avenue through which ordinary people within race–class subjugated communities
can exercise agency within civil legal processes that can be alienating, difficult, and disempowering.
Going beyond these five mechanisms of direct engagement with civil legal processes, tenant organizations also pick up where the civil legal system leaves off,
filling some of the gaping chasms that civil law leaves exposed,
and pushing toward structural change in policy.
In these ways, local organizations build toward new possibilities and plant seeds of transformed power dynamics in the American political economy.
Ultimately, tenant organizations participate in civil legal processes in ways that buttress democracy.
The remainder of this Essay proceeds as follows: As background, Part I contextualizes the role of (nonlegal) local organizations in civil legal processes and posits housing as a key arena for understanding how such organizations engage the civil legal system. Part II draws on in-depth qualitative interviews to detail the five ways that local organizations work within the civil legal system and to mark the limits of their ability to do so. Part III considers the democratic implications of local organizations as key institutions operating within and beyond the civil legal structures.