RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new study conducted by students at the College of William & Mary found that in Richmond eviction courts, tenants can face hostile judges and an opaque system they were unequipped to navigate.

The study, authored by Maggie Inglesby and Georgia Clark, two Juniors studying sociology and government, involved the observation of over 1,000 eviction hearings in Newport News and Richmond during the Summer of 2022. In the vast majority of those cases, they found that courts offered only a cursory hearing to tenants who lacked legal representation or a substantive understanding of the case against them.

Of the 252 cases observed by the researchers in Richmond, just one tenant had legal representation. By contrast, nearly 85% of landlords had an attorney present when they made their case.

“Most people seemed very unfamiliar with the process, and they basically had to rely on the judges to explain what was going on,” Clark said. “And that’s where I really saw the judge’s discretion matter the most.”

While some judges would take the time to explain the case to the defendants so they could understand what was happening, others would simply defer to the landlords when tenants didn’t speak up.

And some judges, their report reads, “spoke to the defendants disrespectfully and were dismissive when tenants tried to defend themselves without the benefit of legal expertise.”

They added that in the few cases where tenants did have legal representation, it made a real difference.

“When tenant lawyers were present, they often asked the judge for a continuance or presented a strong defense against eviction,” they wrote. “This representation, though rare, led to more favorable outcomes for the tenants.”

Inglesby said pervasive short hearing times were often the result of loaded dockets, especially in places like Richmond and Newport News, which a Princeton study found had the second-highest and fourth-highest eviction rates in the country.

“If the judges are expected to sit in court for 100-120 cases a day, they’re very concerned with moving court along as quickly as possible so that everyone can be seen in a timely manner, but then that does kind of compromise the justice process,” she said.

But they said the observations of other students who investigated conditions in Alexandria eviction courts pointed to potential improvements that could be implemented across the state.

In Alexandria, courts had “very efficient and effective practices for ensuring procedural justice,” which involved regularly explaining procedures to tenants facing eviction and informing them of defenses that they might offer to eviction cases.

Clark said that the cases she observed in Richmond suggested that these practices could help many facing evictions, but that currently, it’s up to individual judges to decide whether to offer that help to unrepresented tenants.

“In the few cases I observed where the judge asked the defendant for a defense, usually there was a better outcome for both parties involved,” Clark said. “So I think that would be a good solution that lots of judges could just implement in their courtrooms.”