As we reflect back on the year, we thank, first and foremost, our clients, for the example they have shown – the strength and dignity they have exhibited during exceedingly hard times. We are also truly grateful for the support and commitment of our extraordinary donors, volunteers, board members, and staff.
At a time of retrenchment at legal services organizations around the country, we feel truly fortunate to have been able to grow our program during 2011. We have a new unemployment insurance project, which has already been helping low-income residents receive much-needed safety net benefits in time for the holiday season. A new child support project is shining a much-needed spotlight on this traditionally-neglected court. Hundreds of the District’s most vulnerable families are benefiting from the attention. And we have been continuing our daily work, helping families stay in their homes, obtain much-needed medicine, and responding to other, life-changing legal needs.
This recent matter encapsulates the importance of the work of our lawyers in the daily lives of our clients. One of our clients fell behind on his rent by a single month. He was sued for nonpayment of the single month’s rent. But he never received notice of the case. Not a notice to quit. Not a suit for eviction. The first he heard of the case was when someone in the rental office told him he was scheduled for eviction at 2 pm the next day.
Stunned, the client rushed to court the next morning, finding our Legal Aid’s court-based legal services project which is designed to help out in precisely these emergency situations. We moved to vacate the default judgment and waited for the judge to hear the case. When the case was called, we found out that the eviction had already taken place – two hours ahead of schedule! The client’s possessions were already on the street.
The landlord’s attorney immediately argued that it was too late: the Landlord Tenant Branch had no authority to do anything once the eviction had happened. The judge sitting that morning seemed inclined to agree, concerned about the extent of his jurisdiction to hear the case. We argued to the contrary, then asked for a brief continuance, so we could do further research to persuade the judge of his authority to reinstate the client to his home. Within an hour or so, we had mustered the arguments and persuaded the judge to re-instate the client. The judge, in turn, persuaded the marshals to help move the client’s belongings back into his home. Because of this intervention, the client has a safe (and warm!) home for the holidays. This is a real, palpable example of making justice real for our clients.