New videos aid tenants, landlords with court process

The Maryland Judiciary said Wednesday it has produced three new online videos to provide basic legal information to tenants and landlords who face off in court without lawyers.

The three, 13-minute-long “self help” videos provide detailed instructions on what tenants and landlords can expect when they arrive at District Court for failure-to-pay-rent cases and renters’ complaints of dangerous living conditions.

The videos are part of the Maryland Judiciary’s efforts to expand online self-help resources as the number of people who appear without lawyers in its 34 district courts continues to increase across the state.

“There has been a steady increase in the number of individuals who appear without counsel in the Maryland Courts,” according to a December report issued by the judiciary. “In most civil cases in District Court, at least one party, and often both parties, are unrepresented.”

There were 637,128 landlord-tenant cases filed across the state in fiscal year 2016, more than the motor vehicle, criminal and civil matters filed in District Courts, according to the judiciary’s most recent statistical abstract. Baltimore city had the third highest volume of landlord-tenant matters with 151,238 cases, behind Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

A year-long investigation by The Baltimore Sun reported in April that city judges who oversee tenant complaints of substandard living conditions in “rent escrow” actions routinely ruled in favor of landlords, even when city inspectors had confirmed code violations that should have entitled renters to judgments of lowered or waived rents.

On the eviction side of district court — which issued nearly 70,000 eviction notices in fiscal year 2016, leading to nearly 7,500 evictions — hearings are dispatched quickly, and the rulings routinely favor landlords alleging unpaid rent.

Since May of last year the judiciary has supported several efforts to provide more legal assistance in Baltimore landlord-tenant cases.

It launched a program to place additional free tenant lawyers in district court; opened a “Self Help Resource Center” with four full-time lawyers on the third floor of district court’s downtown building; supported a University of Baltimore “Navigator” program that stations students in the courthouse to help tenants through the process; and expanded an “alternative dispute resolution” mediation program.

“While ideally all litigants would have access to legal representation, we know this is not the case for many who come before Maryland’s courts,” said Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera in a statement. “Our goal with these videos is to provide landlords and tenants who are representing themselves in rent court with useful legal information that will help them prepare for their court proceeding or, perhaps, otherwise resolve the underlying issue.”

The videos, which have been added to a library of 22 others, are available to view anytime on the Maryland Judiciary website. And they also will play on televisions in courthouse hallways, where a video by the Public Justice Center currently airs in Baltimore.

The direct link to the self-help video library is mdcourts.gov/reference/videolibrary.html.

“We believe these videos are a useful resource for tenants and landlords,” District Court of Maryland Chief Judge John P. Morrissey said. “By understanding what happens during rent court and what their options are, litigants can actively take part in the process and move forward to resolve their issues.”

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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