TENANT RIGHT TO COUNSEL (TRC)

All people, regardless of their circumstances or background, should have safe and stable housing — it’s a fundamental human right. Yet, too often, South Carolinians are faced with evictions that threaten their homes, their families, and their well-being. Even more often, people facing eviction are left to navigate that legal hurdle by themselves, without legal representation. This systematically sets up tenants to fail, forcing them to leave their homes and leaving them to deal with the devastating, long-lasting impacts of eviction.

In 2019, 99.7% of defendants in eviction cases in South Carolina were unrepresented.

South Carolina has an opportunity to level the playing field by securing the right to representation for eviction defense statewide. In 2019, 99.7% of defendants in eviction cases in South Carolina were unrepresented. This isn’t surprising, considering many renters are facing eviction because of unforeseen circumstances or financial stress that prevents them from being able to afford their rent, let alone hire counsel to represent them in court. Others facing eviction lack the ability to go to court due to employment, childcare, or transportation restrictions. 

On top of this, any defenses that are available to a renter are virtually impossible to prove without legal representation. About 33 percent of renters feel so powerless to fight an eviction that they don't even show up for court, and instead, a default judgment is entered against them. This means they lose their housing even though there may be funding available to help with rent or they may have a valid defense against eviction. The harms of eviction also run deep — having an eviction on your record results in blacklisting, as many landlords will not even consider an applicant with a prior eviction filing, even if they won the case. Eviction records follow people for years, stigmatizing already vulnerable groups and blocking them from housing opportunities.

This is why representation in eviction cases matters: When renters are represented in court, they are twice as likely to remain housed. Securing renters’ right to representation in eviction proceedings is a critical step South Carolina legislators can take to stop evictions and keep people in their homes. Right to representation measures ensure that renters who are facing the complex process of an eviction proceeding are guaranteed legal representation — giving renters a fair chance to access legal protections and stay in their homes. Additionally, legal representation can help renters apply for rental assistance, ensure that courts do not proceed with an eviction while such applications are pending, and address situations where landlords refuse to accept the rental assistance. Providing a right to representation allows people and families to keep their homes and communities, and in the time of a pandemic, promotes public health. 

THE CASE FOR A CIVIL RIGHT TO COUNSEL

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the United States Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel requires the government to appoint counsel for indigent criminal defendants, at no cost to the defendant.  Since Gideon, some advocates have called for Civil Gideon, or the right to counsel in civil cases. The intended scope for the national right to counsel movement is civil cases concerning basic human needs like housing, safety, and custody. The argument is simple. If someone is entitled to free legal representation when they are charged with even a minor crime that carries little to no prison time, they should also be entitled to legal representation when their housing or child could be taken from them. That’s why, alongside our advocacy partners, we are launching an advocacy campaign to take steps toward resolving this racial justice, gender justice, and human rights issue. 

Updated 4/20/2022