In the weeks following the abrupt end of the national moratorium on evictions, lawyers and judges rushed to mitigate its effects. Eviction court judges have used the bench to promote federal rent relief. Legal aid organizations have redoubled their efforts to support their clients. Aid agencies have appeared in court to directly assist tenants and landlords.
Today, after a seven-month trial period in two state courts, the New Hampshire judicial branch is rolling out a new tool to reduce unnecessary evictions: mediation.
This story first appeared in the New Hampshire Bulletin.
From November, the circuit courts in Concord, Manchester and Nashua will welcome internal mediators to try to avoid eviction proceedings and get landlord and tenant to talk about it.
The new program will spend up to $ 450,000 on two systems: eviction diversion and the Landlord-Tenant Mediation program.
The eviction diversion program will allow any landlord or tenant in the state to initiate a remote meeting with the opposing party prior to an eviction notice.
The Landlord-Tenant Mediation Program, meanwhile, will offer tenants and landlords undergoing eviction proceedings the opportunity to meet in a private room, provided their case is heard by Concord circuit courts. , Manchester or Nashua.
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Both programs were approved by the Executive Council on September 15. And both build on a pre-Concord and Claremont program that started in February.
Supporters of the new system, including the judges themselves, say that pushing landlords and tenants into mediation has real benefits. The process can allow landlords to work out new arrangements that could allow a tenant to stay, including using funding from the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
And even in cases where the tenant has to vacate the apartment, mediation can allow both parties to negotiate a departure that leaves enough time for the tenant to seek new accommodation. Negotiating a settlement can also prevent a formal eviction from being entered on a tenant’s record – a significant barrier to future housing.
“If they can do that, it avoids having the black mark of a case brought against them as a tenant, which is then made public,” said Judge David King, administrative judge of the circuit courts of the ‘State.
But Elliott Berry, an attorney at New Hampshire Legal Assistance and director of the organization’s housing project, warned that mediation is only a tool tenants can use to stay in their housing – and is not not a quick fix.
“Mediation can be an effective tool, but tenants without representation may ignore eviction defenses that can preserve their housing and their rights,” Berry said in a statement. “Any tenant facing an eviction case should seek legal advice or representation through 603 Legal Aid. “
Both programs seek to insert a negotiation session into the typical eviction process.
In the standard New Hampshire eviction process, a landlord will issue a written eviction notice to a tenant. The landlord will then file a landlord and tenant writ with the local circuit court, which will also be served on the tenant. At this point, the tenant has the option to request a hearing to challenge the eviction. If the tenant is successful, the eviction cannot take place. If the landlord is successful, the court will issue a writ of possession, in which case the tenant will be legally required to move out.
The eviction diversion program aims to anticipate this process by allowing parties to mediate before the eviction notice is served or before a hearing is scheduled.
The Landlord-Tenant Mediation Program, on the other hand, allows landlords and tenants in qualified courts to agree to in-person mediation, scheduled by the court to precede the hearing itself. Sometimes this mediation can be scheduled on the day of the hearing, giving both parties a last chance to come to an agreement.
The idea for the program was first launched in February. At that time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent was still in effect, meaning tenants could not be fired for late payment. But there was uncertainty over how long the moratorium would remain in place, and housing experts have warned of a rush of eviction cases if and when that happens.
“We expected to be inundated with issues between landlord and tenant,” King said. The mediation program aimed to create a collaborative alternative for these actions, he added. “These are the situations where the best outcome would be for the tenant to be able to stay in the house. “
In its trial phase, the mediation program was limited to landlords and tenants whose eviction process was already underway. As a test, the judiciary tried to set up mediators in Concord and Claremont to measure effectiveness.
“It never really took off at Claremont because we didn’t have the volume,” King said.
But Concord’s program has been successful. According to figures last updated in June, out of 29 expulsion cases mediated from February to June, 79% of parties were able to reach an agreement that kept them out of the expulsion court , according to Margaret Huang, ADR coordinator. for the judiciary.
Of those who used the process, 90 percent of both parties felt they had been treated fairly, according to polls conducted by the court system.
The high satisfaction rate did not mean that the process always allowed the tenant to stay in their unit. In fact, the vast majority of negotiated settlements resulted in the tenant leaving; it was only in 24% of cases that the tenant was allowed to stay indefinitely.
But even when the regulations forced the tenant to move out, the mediation process was far more beneficial to the tenant than a hearing could have been, Huang argued.
A measure of this can be seen in the average number of days given to tenants who have made agreements to move: 35. The standard eviction process, on the other hand, provides for between five and seven days after the judge has made a ruling. favor of the owner.
The mediation process allows tenants and landlords to avoid a series of strict court-imposed deadlines that take effect if the case goes to court.
And the mediation sessions provided a simple yet powerful tool for the tenant, Huang said: a voice in the process.
“Our mediators are trained facilitators, so they received training on how to get people to listen to each other, talk to each other and find more creative solutions,” Huang said.
The additional federal funding will allow the court to expand this model to Manchester and Nashua, placing it in the state’s three largest population centers.
This fall, King and other circuit court officials are adding a new virtual option that allows landlords or tenants to seek mediation before an eviction order is served – even if they don’t live near cities. with internal mediators.
“Thinking about it further, we thought there might be a way to reach these people before the landlord-tenant case went to court,” King said.
The virtual system, which the justice system hopes to put in place by November, will function much like a hotline.
“We will let owners and tenants know that this program is available and either of them can call our mediation and arbitration office,” King said. After that, the court system will attempt to contact the other party three times to encourage participation in mediation. If both parties agree, a virtual meeting will be organized with a court-appointed mediator.
Discussions on whether these mediations will be conducted by video conference or phone are ongoing, King said.
Mediations have another purpose: they can help the court to highlight the presence of the rental assistance program, which itself can help reach out-of-court settlements.
Earlier this month, Manchester Circuit Court partnered with Southern New Hampshire Services, a community action program agency that helps distribute this rent aid. For three days, an agency representative was stationed in a conference room just outside the courtroom, working to get tenants and landlords to sign up for the rental assistance program on same day that their deportation hearing took place.
The mediation program would not necessarily provide the same opportunity for tenants to register for relief in the courtroom; it would depend on the participation of the CAP agencies.
But King and Huang said the collaboration, if it could continue, would be a useful addition to the mediation process.
“We really hope to deal early with cases that would otherwise go to the court system,” Huang said. “We want homeowners and tenants who have a dispute or an issue they need help with to use this program. “