On October 6, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released a new study called “Foreclosure: A Crisis in Legal Representation.” The report, authored by Melanca Clark with Maggie Barron, found that many people facing property foreclosure have no legal counsel.

Over the last year in New York “84 percent of defendants in proceedings in Queens County involving foreclosures on ‘subprime,’ ‘high cost’ or ‘non-traditional’ mortgages (which are mortgages disproportionately targeted to low-income and minority homeowners) proceeded without full legal representation,”  the report states. “In Richmond County (Staten Island), 91 percent of such defendants were unrepresented, and in Nassau County, 92 percent were unrepresented.”

This lack of counsel is being felt around the country; the study found that in Stark County, Ohio, 86 percent of those facing property foreclosure in 2008 had no counsel. In 2007-2008, more than 60 percent of those facing property foreclosure in Connecticut had no counsel.

“It’s overwhelming how many people don’t have representation,” Clark, an attorney for the Brennan Center's Justice Program, told USA Today. “People don’t know what to do when they go through this alone.”

Chief among the obstacles for homeowners seeking legal representation is the meager budget allowed for civil legal aid. The report states that in 1996 federal funds for agencies like the Legal Services Corporation were cut by one-third. Homeowners represented by the Legal Services Corporation are further handcuffed by a provision in 1994’s “Contract with America,” which does not allow them bring class action suits against predatory lenders.

The study offers four recommendations: increase funding for foreclosure legal representation; remove funding restrictions that undercut effective legal advocacy for homeowners and tenants; expand access to the courts and to other dispute resolution mechanisms for homeowners facing foreclosure proceedings; and recognize a right to consult with a trained housing counselor and, as necessary, a lawyer.

Posted on October 19, 2009