With most Covid-era tenant protections coming to an end, Texas Housers is calling on Justices of the Peace in our state to maintain and improve on the eviction prevention and diversion policies implemented during the pandemic.
Earlier this year, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, Nathan Hecht, shared a message in The New York Times. He reminded us that “the wide array of eviction prevention and diversion programs share a common goal: to create an opportunity for all litigants — tenants and landlords — to have the time and resources to resolve their housing problems in the least harmful way possible.”
Justices of the Peace are in a unique position to set the standard on fair and just rulings that equalize the power balance between tenants and landlords under this eviction crisis. The following list of best practices for Justices across the state is based on successful policies implemented in courts across the country. It is worth noting that the best practices range from actions that can be implemented in court today to actions that require more funding and implementation efforts.
The practices on this list have been vetted through our work in eviction courts, our partner organizations, individual recommendations, and existing recommendations from the National Center for State Courts. We consider this a working list and welcome your feedback and suggestions through this form or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org directly.
Ensure Due Process*
- Ensure both parties are sworn in: Swear both parties in before hearing any testimony, even if the defendant is not present.
- Confirm occupancy: Confirm that the tenant has not vacated by the hearing date.
- Notice to vacate: Confirm that the notice to vacate was given, how it was given, and if the appropriate time frame was honored before the eviction petition was filed.
- Hear the defendant: Allow defendants to speak. Provide resources about the judgment issued and next steps as well as community resources if the tenant is facing homelessness.
- Verify the amount owed: For nonpayment cases, verify the amount that is owed and the monthly rent.
*Note that practices 1-5 are already required by law. They are included here because they are not uniformly practiced in all Justice courts.
Make Court Accessible
- Provide resources: Provide financial and legal resource information prior to an eviction hearing, including, but not limited to, providing financial and legal resources to the defendant with the eviction notice.
- Written language accessibility: Provide all documents in English and Spanish.
- Virtual/phone options: Provide virtual or telephonic options for parties to attend their hearings.
- Interpretation services: Ensure professional interpretation services are available in person or virtually for all non-english speakers. A fair and unbiased trial includes the right to understand the testimony of the opposing party and be understood by all parties involved.
- Smaller dockets: Restrict the number of cases that can be heard in a single docket, or schedule dockets in smaller groups. This reduces wait times for litigants and lawyers, and reduces time pressure for judges and court staff.
- Provide reminders: Provide litigants with hearing time and date reminders. Automated reminders increase the likelihood of both parties attending court at the right time, and will decrease the prevalence of default judgments.
- Clear communication: Clearly notify defendants of how they will be contacted with updates to their hearing time, and how they can update their contact information with the court.
Support Court Services and Eviction Diversion
- Support tenant navigation and/or facilitation services and eviction diversion programs. Advocate for the resources and funds needed to maintain these programs.
- Ensure defendant legal representation: Ensure legal aid is present in all eviction hearings. Grant court access to these organizations and encourage litigants to explore their options by talking with these organizations.
- Support community navigators: Encourage and allow nonprofit community navigators to be present in all eviction hearings. Grant court access to these organizations and encourage litigants to explore their options by talking with these organizations.
- Rental assistance program coordination: Coordinate with local rental assistance programs to facilitate entry to programs prior to an eviction hearing.
- Provide contact information: Require landlords to include the last known phone number and email address of the tenant(s) in the sworn original, amended, or supplemental petition so this information can be accessed by local social service agencies. This information allows community navigators to reach tenants before their court date, thus alleviating the burden of education in the courtroom while decreasing the number of cases on eviction court dockets.
- Payment plan negotiation: Affirmatively ask the plaintiff to negotiate a payment plan (including rental assistance options).
Improve Court Transparency
- Data reporting**: Report complete eviction data to the Texas Office of Court Administration on a timely basis.
- Court observers: Ensure that visitors can observe court, both in person and virtually.
**Note that practice 16 is already required by law. It is included here because it is not uniformly practiced in all Justice courts.