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Access commission hears of rising demand for eviction services

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Access Commission logoEviction filings are spiking in Florida according to some indicators, even as more resources are being made available to help Floridians in these and other cases.

The Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice, in a virtual October 16 meeting, got reports on eviction matters as well as broader efforts to help people with legal problems while the COVID-19 pandemic restricts access to and functioning of the courts.

Commission member and Legal Services of Greater Miami Executive Director Monica Vigues-Pitan cited her county as an example of the rising demand for eviction services.

From March 27 through July, there were 1,033 residential evictions filed in Miami-Dade County. That rose to more than 1,000 a month in August and September, she said.

“There’s no reason to believe this is not representative for what’s happening around the state,” Vigues-Pitan said. “In addition, our office…has seen a 100% increase in requests for eviction defense legal assistance since July. The impending tsunami that we’re expecting with evictions cases, unfortunately we’re starting to see that.”

She said legal aid offices are working to meet the needs of clients as they come in, and also pursuing other solutions:

• Working with the Real Property, Probate, and Trust Law Section and The Florida Bar Foundation on the Florida Attorneys Counseling on Evictions (FACE) Program. [Link to Bar News story] “There have been several webinars to train lawyers who will be volunteering to represent and assist tenants,” Vigues-Pitan said.

• Jacksonville Area Legal Aid has developed a do-it-yourself eviction defense form preparation program — called Florida Eviction Answer Builder — for tenants unable to get pro bono or legal aid help. “We are expecting to have more, unfortunately, potential clients than we can provide legal assistance to,” Vigues-Pitan said. The program will allow users to draft answers, motions to determine rent, and declarations. The program can be found at floridaevictionanswerbuilder.org.

• Orange and Miami-Dade counties separately have created eviction task forces, including tenants, landlords, rental assistance programs, homeless assistance agencies, and others to “share information and see any emerging trends on what can be done,” Vigues-Pitan said.

She added that the commission may want to emulate Tennessee, which held an eviction summit earlier this month to provide information and identify solutions.

Better data, such as listing the number of evictions by zip code, would also help address the eviction crisis, Vigues-Pitan said.

Aside from those efforts, Frank Digon-Greer, Bar Programs Division assistant director, said the Young Lawyers Division Access to Justice Committee is working on an eviction video to help tenants. The YLD has already helped the commission prepare short videos for pro se parties on basic tips on filing or answering a civil complaint and how to prepare for appearing in court.

The new video, like the first two, will be posted under the resources tab on the commission’s webpage, https://atj.flcourts.org/.

Two new banners are also at the top of that webpage, one linking to the Centers for Disease Control’s order for a temporary halt of residential evictions and the second a link to a webpage of resources to help people with legal issues during the pandemic.

The latter, available at https://atj.flcourts.org/Resources/COVID-19-Resources, has a written guide for self-represented litigants on accessing the courts with remote technology, according to Andrew Johns of the Office of the State Courts Administrator. It also has links to the Florida Courts Help website and related app, the Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service, court clerks’ online resources and self-help centers, the Florida Free Legal Answers service, and The Florida Bar Foundation’s legal aid program finder.

The commission also heard about other efforts to help Floridians with legal problems, including those created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic:

• Maggie Lewis, of OSCA, said, landlord/tenant DIY forms have been available since 2018 on the court system’s statewide e-filing portal. Small claims forms including a statement of claims and answers, became available September 19. Forms on domestic violence and simplified marriage dissolutions are being finished. Eventually, Lewis said there will be 110 forms for 24 types of proceedings available on the portal.

• Lindsay Hafford, also of OSCA, said a pilot program that began in May for online dispute resolution for small claims cases in Orange and Columbia counties and for civil traffic infractions in Miami-Dade County will be completed at the end of October, with a report due to the Supreme Court in January.

• Paul Flemming, OSCA public information officer, said a recent campaign to prepare a video about how courts are protecting public safety during the pandemic will be expanded to include videos about remotely accessing clerk and court services.

• Commission member Gordon Glover said work is continuing on a proposed amendment to Chapter 20 of Bar rules to allow “advanced” attorney-supervised paralegals to perform more services for otherwise unrepresented clients. He said the Bar Board of Governors reviewed the proposal and asked that the commission work with the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law and Family Law sections to address their reservations. Glover said the proposal will come back to the commission next year and if approved will go back to the Board of Governors.

• Digon-Greer reported that State Farm Insurance has become a corporate sponsor of the Florida Free Legal Answers program. That means the company will encourage its lawyers working in Florida to join and participate with the program, which allows attorneys to answer online questions posted by qualified individuals. So far, Digon-Greer said Florida lawyers have answered 10,663 of the 12,665 questions asked since the program started in May 2017, with the number of questions posed rising sharply since the pandemic started.

The commission’s October 16 meeting was its first since last December as spring and summer sessions were canceled because of COVID-19. Justice Jorge Labarga, chair of the commission, said he hopes regular meetings will now resume with the next one being held in February or March.

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