Many tenants arrive at the Housing Justice Project with little information about the eviction process. The one thing they are sure of is that they are owed a day in court. It is the one right they feel they can rely upon, and many of them wish to exercise it.
Unfortunately, many of our clients misunderstand what results are available from a hearing in an unlawful detainer action. It is our responsibility as attorneys to help our clients make informed decisions about whether or not to appear before a commissioner. Tenants facing eviction may get a much better outcome from negotiation and an out-of-court settlement. Often, the results they most desire are not even possibilities in the course of a hearing.
A common misunderstanding among HJP’s clients is that the hearing will be a time for the airing of grievances. They want the commissioner to listen to their stories and render a just verdict. They are hopeful that the commissioner will either reduce the amount of money that they owe to their landlord, give them extra time to move out, or both. Many tenants also want to use their hearing to force the landlord to make needed repairs, or to stop the landlord from mistreating other tenants. They may hope that, after their story is told, they will be vindicated.
In fact, the commissioner will be listening for very particular legal and factual arguments presented by the attorneys for both sides. Parts of the tenant’s story may come out during this process, but not in the narrative form that the tenant may desire. The commissioner will decide whether or not the landlord is entitled to a writ of restitution and possible money judgment. The commissioner will not preside over negotiations as to the amount owed, or award extra time to move out. Nor will the commissioner order the landlord to behave differently or become a better person.
Therefore, we as counselors must hear our clients’ stories. We need to help them let go of unrealistic expectations of the eviction process so that they can obtain the best possible result. It is only when our clients understand the true nature of winning in court, and the true risk of loss, that they will be able to make informed decisions and meet their own goals. We must help them understand that the vindication they may seek will not come from their day in court.