Article Title

Pro Se Aspects of Hampden County Housing Court: Helping People Help Themselves

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Urban Law Annual


Great changes in American life have occurred over the last score of years. With these changes has come an increasing public interest in the law and how it affects individual rights. This growing interest may account for alterations in the administration of the law and in the legal profession itself. Today, attorneys find themselves hard-pressed to stay abreast of the ever-broadening law, as each decision weaves greater detail and specificity into the older law.

While the public continues to demand judicial resolutions to societal problems, the need for professional legal expertise in many routine "legal" matters is being questioned. It is often thought that laymen should be allowed to perform some of these tasks themselves. The legal profession itself is beginning to realize that some matters cost far more to handle than lawyers can properly charge. Often clients are better off doing some things for themselves, or having paralegals rather than lawyers perform the more routine services.

Public pressures to enable individuals to handle simple legal matters without attorneys have led to an increasing use of the courts by unrepresented parties. The extension of prose adjudication into the realm of landlord-tenant problems partially explains the creation of courts like the Hampden County Housing Court.

The Hampden County Housing Court began operation two years after the establishment of the Boston Housing Court. Hampden County tenants responsible for the court's creation cited the need for a specialized housing court since the district courts could not adequately deal with housing problems on a timely basis due to its crowded schedule and because the right to appeal to the higher superior court was nondiscretionary. Additionally, the tenants felt that the juxtaposition of housing-related cases with the usual district court docket of more serious crimes would make housing matters appear relatively less important to the presiding judges.

With the advent of the Boston Housing Court in 1971 at a superior court level, a forum was created where urban housing cases could be heard by judges in a specialized atmosphere and with the assistance of a specially trained staff. In Springfield, the Commonwealth's second largest city, support for a second housing court was not widespread until fire destroyed a condemned, but still occupied house, taking the lives of two small children. The result was the bill creating the Hampden County Housing Court, the first housing court in the nation with county-wide jurisdiction able to deal with urban, suburban and rural housing cases.

The atmosphere of a "people's court" surrounded the housing court from its early stages, when the governor agreed to allow an ad hoc public committee to participate in interviewing and recommending candidates for both the judge and clerk of the new court. A Citizens Advisory Committee to the court was created as a result. These actions helped to create the impression that the rules followed in other courts need not necessarily apply in the Hampden County Housing Court. In addition, the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Haddad affirmed the right of a private citizen "to enter complaints for a violation of the law," thus confirming the status of a citizen complainant in a criminal proceeding seeking to enforce the state sanitary code. This decision allowed the courts to take complaints from citizens when municipal officials failed to act.

Of course, the conception of the housing court as a "free-form" court operating with different rules is false. Hampden County Housing Court operates under the same rules of criminal procedure as the district courts of the Commonwealth, and under the same civil rules and appellate rules as the superior courts of the Commonwealth with a few exceptions. The most important special rules concern the right to transfer any case within the county to the housing court simply by filing a transfer form and the right to accept a written report from a housing, building or other governmental inspector into evidence without requiring that the inspector be in court to give testimony.

By giving the court concurrent jurisdiction with both district and superior courts, the advantages of both courts are gained. Additionally, equity powers which district courts lack, and the right of appeal to the Commonwealth's Appeals Court which negates appeals for the sake of delay are realized.

These few rule changes do not amount to a "people's court." Rather, they create an aura of service and openness to the people who use the courts and pay the salaries.

In addition, two positive steps have been taken to help citizens more easily use the court.