Help to Live Safely And Well
As is the case in most major cities, lower-income tenants in Baltimore often face unhealthy and even hazardous living situations. If they choose to seek legal action due to unresponsive landlords, little help is available because court-appointed attorneys aren’t provided for civil cases in Maryland. And research conducted at UB has shown that those who represent themselves in court often don’t achieve the protections they are entitled to under the law.
Enter UB's new Navigator Pilot Program, directed by Michele Cotton, associate professor in the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies. "Once we realized the legal problems and obstacles faced by people asking for remedies for unsafe living conditions, we thought, what can we do?" Cotton says.
With Cotton's assistance, undergraduate, graduate and law students—called "navigators"—help unrepresented tenants through the legal process. The cases they focus on involve people dealing with conditions such as a lack of heat or water, vermin infestations and unhealthy leaks and molds.
Before beginning their work in the Baltimore District Court, navigators receive extensive training via coursework and online sessions, in addition to face-to-face role-playing. “They learn how the court operates, typical steps for these types of cases, and what they are able to do to help unrepresented individuals," Cotton explains. Navigators provide information about legal options, accompany tenants into the courtroom and to negotiating sessions, and help with paperwork and organization.
"The students learn about the legal profession from direct observation and spending time with lawyers and judges at the courthouse," adds Cotton. "They’re developing critical, evaluative and reflective thinking skills and are involved in hands-on problem solving."
The pilot program is modeled on a similar initiative that has been operating successfully in New York City for several years, but UB students are the first to assume a navigator role in Maryland’s courts. Eventually organizers plan to expand the program to include students from other colleges and to address a wider variety of cases.
Cotton, who is taking a semester-long sabbatical to get the program up and running, will teach the training courses and be on-site at the courthouse with the student navigators. "We believe strongly in the potential of this program," she says. "We’re serving Baltimore and its residents by helping the law accomplish what it’s meant to."