Housing Court 101

If your landlord is refusing to make repairs or you still haven't gotten your security deposit back from a lease that ended in August, you might be considering taking your landlord to housing court. Housing Court just plain sounds intimidating. What is housing court and what can you expect if you go there?

According to Mass.gov: 

The Massachusetts housing courts were established to handle cases involving residential housing. In addition to summary process (eviction) cases, the courts’ jurisdiction includes small claims cases, consumer protection cases, and civil actions involving the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing, including cases with personal injury, property damage, breach of contract, and discrimination claims.

If you considering going to housing court, take a minute and consider if you can work things out with your landlord through a mediation process first.

According to Mass.gov there are the advantages of using the mediation process: 

Time: It almost always takes less time to mediate a dispute than it does to try a case, in question-and-answer form, with objections heard and ruled upon in accordance with the law of evidence, and with much additional time necessary if there is prior discovery, an interpreter, a jury trial, or subsequent appeal. In addition, the parties are free to schedule their own mediation at their early convenience, rather than waiting for trial after service of the summons and complaint.

Confidentiality: All communications in mediation are confidential, and neither the mediator's work product nor the participants' statements made in mediation relating to its subject matter can be later disclosed or admitted into evidence if a trial is held. Private sessions between a single party and the mediator are particularly confidential, because they are not even shared with the other party without permission. The only record of a mediation is the written agreement reached by the parties.

Control: Mediation is an opportunity for parties to resolve their own dispute rather than turning over control of the decisional process to the judge. And, unlike the judge who is bound to make a decision on the legal evidence in accordance with the legal rules applicable to the case, the parties are free to reach settlement terms tailored to satisfy their own individual interests and needs.

Satisfaction: Studies have shown that mediation generally results in a high level of participant satisfaction. And, parties often find the process useful even if only a partial rather than a complete resolution of the dispute is achieved, even if the parties are able only to "winnow away" the unimportant and undisputed issues from the narrow issues that must be tried.

Durability: Studies have also shown that individuals are more likely to accept and abide by their own decisions rather than decisions imposed on them by others. Therefore, in comparison to adjudicated resolutions, mediated agreements are more durable, and the compliance rate is very high.

Binding effect: Once approved and signed by the judge, a mediated agreement may become a judgment or court order with the same legal effect as if the judge decided the case.

Final effect: Agreements for judgment, unlike court-ordered judgments, cannot be appealed. And like other judgments, agreements for judgment can be vacated or modified only where there is mutual assent, or changed unforeseen circumstances, or other unusual events.

Voluntary: Mediation is a voluntary process, and cases are resolved by mediation only with the mutual assent of the parties. If, after reasonable effort, the parties cannot resolve their dispute through mediation, the right to trial is preserved and the judge will hear and decide the case. If you do end up needing to go to housing court, make sure you act appropiately while you are there. Showing your respect for the process can do a lot of work in your favor.

Here are Mass.gov's guidelines on how to conduct yourself in court:

Dress in a way that shows respect for the court: You do not have to buy new clothes for court but halters, worn out jeans and tee-shirts are not appropriate. Don't chew gum, eat or drink in the courtroom.

Be on time: If you miss your hearing, the judge can make orders that you may not agree with and which may seriously affect you.

Stand when the judge enters or leaves the courtroom: The court officer will tell you when to sit and stand. If you are in doubt, stand when the judge is standing. You can usually sit down once the judge is seated, unless you are speaking with the judge.

Stand and speak when the judge talks to you: Remain standing as long as you and the judge are talking. You may need to stay standing even if the judge talks to the person on the other side of your case. If in doubt, ask the judge before sitting down.

The judge will let you know when to speak: Never get into an argument or even a discussion with the other side in front of the judge. Always speak directly to the judge, unless the judge allows you to answer formal questions from the other side.

Speak clearly: You need to speak and not just nod or shake your head because court proceedings are always recorded. Listen carefully to the questions you are asked. Be direct and to the point when answering questions.

Always address the judge as Your Honor: The judge must keep order in the courtroom and will be making important decisions about you. Be respectful and understand that the judge likes to keep the proceedings as orderly as possible. This helps keep the process fair to everyone.

Your case may be Taken Under Advisement: This means that the judge needs time to think about how to decide your case and the court will mail the decision to you once it is made. Make sure that the court has your current mailing address.

Do not talk on your way out or even right outside the door: Many times another hearing starts as soon as yours ends, and your talking can interfere with the next case.

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