There were 628 foreclosures in New Haven in 2015 — 19 more homes than the previous year, according to state data, and evidence that the city is still in the grips of the subprime mortgage lending crisis.
Most of these people can’t afford to hire a lawyer, but since February about 15 Yale Law School students have been representing local residents who face foreclosure, with a goal to assist 100 homeowners this year. The clinic shows how law schools and aspiring lawyers are finding ways to address the access to justice crisis.
“We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they had somebody on their side who could do that?,’” said James Mandilk, a 2L Yale Law student who helped spearhead the new program. "We can’t help everybody with their entire case, but when they’re in front of the judge, they need that help the most, and we can help.”
Under the program, two attorneys volunteer to supervise law students who offer pro bonorepresentation to homeowners facing foreclosure. Students serve as the residents’ point of contact throughout a foreclosure proceeding and argue the cases before a judge, which are brought in Connecticut Superior Court as civil litigation.
To launch the program, Yale law students lobbied the Rules Committee in Connecticut’s judicial branch to allow students to represent clients in such cases in a limited capacity.
On Jan. 1, rules went into effect that allow students to represent homeowners on any issue that the parties agree to within a foreclosure case.
Every year, between 300 and 500 New Haven residents face foreclosure and represent themselves because they can’t afford attorneys, according to the school’s research of the New Haven Judicial District’s foreclosure dockets.
The program provides students real-world legal experience: even two first-year law students managed to argue cases in front of judges, Mandilk said. Students have also met with opposing counsel to negotiate a resolution.
“It’s not a 100 percent solution for a lack of representation in foreclosure and other civil cases,” Mandilk said. “But it’s a step and we think it’s a good model for other programs in similar areas of law across the country.”
Around the country, people are rethinking how to put lawyers on housing problems. Bloomberg reports that the New York City Council is considering a bill, backed by the state bar association, to fund lawyers for renters who meet certain income qualifications as a way to address the homelessness problem:
The bar association, in a new report, said if taxpayers fund legal counsel for poor renters who face eviction, they would learn of those rights, and the knock-on effect would eventually pay for their lawyers — and save the city millions of dollars.