Housing Law Clinic students Tabitha Bandi and Cynthia Lee appeared in Grenada County Justice Court on March 28 for a client whose former landlord sued him for unpaid rent, late fees and for the cost of changing the locks. Based on their argument, the judge credited their client with his security deposit, disallowed the landlord’s late fees and reduced other charges, saving the tenant $500.
“This case illustrates of the importance of legal assistance in the not-so-glamorous cases,” said Debbie Bell, associate dean for clinical programs. “It’s not a headline-grabber or a class action. It is a small case in justice court, where the judge is not even required to be a lawyer. The dollars at stake are relatively small. Even the legal principles are not terribly complicated. But without an attorney, the legal rights often mean little.”
Bandi and Lee were supervised by Desiree Hensley, supervising professor of the low-income housing section clinic. The Housing Clinic is one of 11 clinical programs at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Students in the clinic bring and defend cases, negotiate settlements and offer advice and counsel to individuals and families facing conflict with their landlords, eviction and foreclosure.
“If Desiree and her students had not been there, this tenant probably would not only have been out his $500, but might have ended up further in the hole,” Bell said. “It’s hard to know what other fees might have been tacked on that were not brought up because they were there.”
The clinic works to provide tenants with certain legal rights and sees those rights are enforced. The right to get your security deposit back or to have it applied to debts are common examples. But those rights are often useless without an advocate who can insist that the law be applied, according to Bell.
“Without these students’ work, the outcome would have been very different,” she said. “To someone who has just lost their home, $500 may be the difference in his or her ability to get another place to live. It may be the equivalent of half a month’s income to some tenants. An eviction or loss of home is often the beginning of a spiral that pushes a family further into poverty and homelessness.”