A look inside a Mass. ‘poverty court,’ where no one has the right to an attorney

Below is an excerpt from a June 16 article published by MassLive documenting the experiences of Massachusetts residents facing the housing court system. Community Legal Aid’s Gordon Shaw is quoted.


SPRINGFIELD — It’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday. Every row of benches in the Western Housing Court in Springfield is full of people. In the back of the courtroom, about 20 people stand against the wall, including a man holding a toddler.

Welcome to a typical Thursday in housing court.

“Please listen up and focus,” Judge Robert G. Fields tells the room, before explaining what’s ahead. “Housing law is complicated,” he says. He encourages anyone who needs help to visit the court’s resource room, which offers free legal advice on Thursdays.

A clerk reads through the names on each case, taking attendance, listing options and asking what the parties want to do. Hands go up in the gallery and people call out. Some people aren’t there and the clerk declares defaults — meaning the court can file a judgment against them.

Before going into court, attorney Gordon Shaw, director of client access at Community Legal Aid, walks by a bulletin board in the hallway, which displays a 22-page docket for the day. Under “attorney,” more than 100 people are listed as “pro se,” meaning they do not have a lawyer.

“This is the problem in a nutshell,” Shaw said.

Mostly it’s tenants listed as pro se, but some landlords, too, are not represented. Unlike a criminal case, people do not have the right to an attorney in Massachusetts housing court, leaving those who can’t afford an attorney navigating — and often stumbling — through the complex system themselves.

Read more at MassLive.