Across the country, COVID-19 has highlighted long-standing systemic challenges that have made many families even more vulnerable in the aftermath of the pandemic. In New Jersey, this was especially true for the state eviction process. As an overwhelming number of pending evictions continue to accumulate, the New Jersey Supreme Court has an opportunity to consider changes in legal proceedings between landlords and tenants to make the eviction process fairer for landlords and tenants, and especially for those who don’t have a lawyer to help them.
On April 21, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court released a report containing a series of proposals that would result in significant and much-needed revisions to the way landlord-tenant cases are handled in the state. After careful analysis of its contents, a coalition of 25 housing and racial justice organizations across the state, including our own, submitted written comments in response to the report, drawing on our experience as lawyers and the lived experience of our clients and thousands of like-minded people. people without access to legal services.
As the committee’s report acknowledges, “the judiciary must prioritize neutrality, transparency and access in order to protect the rights of all parties, including those who navigate the judicial process without legal representation.” The Supreme Court now has important decisions to make as it tries to ensure these safeguards are in place when landlord-tenant lawsuits resume, particularly vital in a case where nearly 99% of tenants are unrepresented.
We applaud the Supreme Court’s commitment to reexamine and reinvent the landlord-tenant process in New Jersey to make it fairer for all litigants. The Special Committee that drafted the report has kept this vision at the heart of its work. Some courts, faced with the imminent tsunami of eviction cases following the moratorium on evictions, have reportedly made the clearance of cases their objective; our court has made equity its goal.
While this work is particularly important given the pandemic and the heightened vulnerabilities many New Jersey residents face, these reforms were desperately needed long before COVID-19. The current system is actually quite flawed and vulnerable to bad actors using the court process to take advantage of scared and vulnerable tenants on the day of trial. For too long, New Jersey’s landlord-tenant courts have operated in a way that disadvantages tenants and fails to protect the fundamental due process rights of unrepresented litigants.
For these reasons, we strongly support many of the recommendations of the Special Committee. The recommendations envision a landlord-tenant court where pleadings are considered pre-trial for legal sufficiency, and where tenants have more opportunity and time to understand possible legal defenses and can access essential legal and social services, including rent assistance.
We also urge the court to take the additional steps necessary to make landlord-tenant courts fair and equitable.
- First, the court should implement a comprehensive form that we have proposed that would allow tenants to identify their defenses to an eviction action.
- Second, the court should not adopt settlement forms in which tenants see judgments against them while they are still in compliance with a repayment agreement or other settlement terms that allow them to stay in their accommodation. . Such a practice does not occur in any other way and makes it much more difficult for tenants to rent apartments in the future.
- Third, the court should not require a tenant who needs a postponement of a lawsuit to first file money with the court. Finally, when landlord-tenant lawsuits resume, we urge the courts to recognize the challenges many community members – especially those who are older, on low income, or with limited English proficiency – will face in trying to access procedures remotely and ensure that appropriate housing and protections are in place as safeguards for these litigants.
The work of the Special Committee is an important step in fixing a badly broken system. The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to solidify the foundations of the New Jersey landlord-tenant court process before trials resume and hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans face eviction and homelessness.