Wheels of justice turn a bit faster in Boston court

''OK, say you hear . . . .'' The overweight man with shaggy blond hair and ill-fitting green jacket paused, nervously twisting his plump fingers together. ''Well, say you hear, in the presence of witnesses, your landlord threaten, 'I'm gonna burn you out.' I mean, is there anything I can do about that, in court, I mean?''

The legal-aid attorney, a recent law school graduate, with equally shaggy blond hair, sits cross-legged on an oak table fiddling with his beard and listening to the tenant at this Boston legal aid clinic. Their give-and-take has been sprinkled with talk of leaky pipes, frosty rooms, and harassment by the landlord.

''OK, that constitutes harassment,'' the young lawyer says, suddenly jumping to life. ''But I think the best thing is to wait, because it sounds like he'll bring you to court first and then we can just counterclaim. It's easier that way.''

Ten years ago, such words would not have been spoken. Violations of state housing codes were difficult, if not impossible, to get corrected if a landlord proved balky. Little opportunity existed to get rid of the rats, roaches, and lead paint that were common problems in lower-income neighborhoods. District courts, the traditional forum for housing disputes, were usually backlogged for weeks - small comfort for a tenant trying to get his heat turned on in the dead of winter, or a cash-poor landlord attempting to evict a tenant for a default in rent. More than likely, the tenant described above would have simply been out of luck.

When several cities - Detroit, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New York, to mention a few - decided in the late 1960s and early '70s that such wrongs needed to be righted, or at least a more efficient forum was needed to hear about the rats and rent disputes, those communities set up specialized housing courts. At the time, those courts were much ballyhooed as a way to cut through bureaucratic red tape, bring justice to the people, and possibly even preserve a city's housing stock.

But today, a decade since their inception, housing courts are coming under renewed scrutiny. Critics wonder if they have indeed streamlined the clogged judicial processes or if they have only added another ring to the already three-ring judicial circus. Other observers question whether the courts have really protected community housing stock or if the urban housing scene is in fact crumbling under ever more severe economic factors. In one instance, the Massachusetts legislature attempted to strip the housing court of its original far-reaching jursidiction.

While the 20 or so housing courts scattered across the country are as different from one another as plaintiffs are from defendants, the American Bar Association (ABA) said in a recent study that overall, and despite their flaws, housing courts were an improvement over the old system. (Court powers vary in strength from simple fine-levying to the ability to place an entire city housing board in receivership.)

The former director of the ABA study, Randall Scott, said that not every city may need a full-fledged, autonomous housing court, but that ''every community should consider the advantages of even a part-time housing judge.'' For not only are housing laws becoming increasingly complex, but the number of such disputes continues to grow, too.

But even the ABA admitted that the specialized courts have had only a ''marginal effect'' on improving a city's housing quality. Says a housing judge, ''I don't think we can say any neighborhoods have gotten better, but at least some haven't gotten worse.'' In most cases, the courts, which are often just part of the larger court system, are limited to -correcting ''problem cases'' and levying fines - which leads many observers to criticize their often limited jurisdiction. But even the more autonomous courts have their problems: The huge and fragmented housing court in New York City has often been labeled ''an eviction mill'' - it hears nearly half a million eviction cases a year.

Despite these criticisms, tenants and community groups have remained largely enthusiastic about the courts. ''I think tenants generally get a better deal in the housing courts,'' a Boston-based legal aid attorney says. But he adds that much of the courts' success depends upon how well the tenants know their rights. It also depends upon the individual court's commitment to providing the poor with a place to voice their complaints.

James Rowan, a poverty law professor, explains: ''The extensive legislation governing landlord-tenant relationships is tough for a regular judge to keep on top of. It's a bunch of odd-ball rules, and the housing court judges are usually better informed.''

Among the courts most often credited with having an informal, shirt-sleeve atmosphere is the Boston Housing Court. As one of the most efficient and powerful housing courts in the country, the Boston court remains unique in its commitment to low-income tenants and landlords unable to hire their own attorneys and who must appear before the judge as ''pro se'' (unrepresented by legal counsel) litigants. Many housing courts, such as the one in Pittsburgh, require all complaints to be filed through a government housing board, thus eliminating the possibility for individual action.

''Conceptually, Boston has the best pro se court in the country,'' Scott says. ''They are far ahead of any other court system.'' But, he cautions, the legislative powers aren't enough in themselves. For it to work effectively, judges and other court personnel must be equally committed to the system. And not only commitment, but pure manpower is required to handle the 500 telephone calls per week, as well as the 10,000 cases that actually come to court each year.

What the Boston court has done is arm itself with four assistant clerks and a six-man battery of mediators, many of whom are bilingual. The clerks are available to help uncertain tenants without attorneys wend their way through the court proceedings. The mediators, officially known as housing specialists and who operate without law degrees, meet with the tenants and landlords in a crowded and smoke-filled room above the court, trying to reach informal agreements. With as many as 40 people in the office at one time, the smoky room is often punctuated by such scraps of conversations as''They've already turned the gas off, so I don't have to pay my heat anymore''; ''I had to postpone my wedding because of this eviction notice!''

While such mediation is optional, most feuding litigants do participate in this initial attempt to reach solutions. Estimates vary as to how many cases actually reach an agreement here, but guesses range from 50 to 80 percent - a batting average good enough to keep the court dockets free for all but the must stubborn cases.

Those recalcitrant tenants and landlords who cannot reach an agreement must clomp back down the stairs, re-enter the courtroom, and wait for the the clerk to call their case to trial.

On this particular Thursday, the traditional day for hearing eviction cases, the courtroom is packed. Autumn sunlight streams in through the high courtroom windows, past the plastic tulips gracing the window ledge, past the blown-dry haircuts of the lawyers gracing the otherwise empty jury box. The golden teak-paneled walls create a surprisingly somber mood in the jammed courtroom. The trappings of the law seem to carry enough weight to hush the dozens of plaintiffs and defendants.

The assistant clerk, a black man in a copper-colored suit, stands in the middle of the room calling out case names and numbers. His voice lilts over the names, ''Margaret Oliver versus James Green'' with a sing-song accent that seems strangely relaxed in this room so charged with professionalism.

Mr. Green, the landlord, is seeking to evict Miss Oliver, the tenant, for back payment of rent totaling some $900. Miss Oliver contends that the rats and clogged kitchen sink make her apartment worth nothing. Mr. Green has armed himself with a pin-stripe-suited attorney. Miss Oliver has brought only her story of landlord negligence, and some snapshots to prove it.

After brief questioning of Mr. Green by his lawyer, Judge E. George Dahre, the chief housing judge, directs Miss Oliver to question her landlord herself. ''See the reason I didn't get the eviction notice is because I was on vacation, '' she calls out loudly. A second attempt by the judge to get Miss Oliver to question her landlord also fails. Finally Judge Dahre suggests she take the witness stand and tell her side of the story.

''Go ahead, take your time,'' he offers, and sits back to hear a not uncommon tale of rats, clogged plumbing, and a profound lack of communication between landlord and tenant. ''I have pictures,'' she says defiantly. The judge removes his hand from his forehead to look at the proffered snapshots.

''That's a rat,'' she says, leaning over his black-robed arm to point out the offending creature captured on film. The expression on the judge's face doesn't change. Someone in the court whispers, ''He's seen the entire city in pictures.'' After a moment of leafing through the remaining shots, the judge offers them to the plaintiff's attorney. ''I've seen them, your honor,'' he says indifferently.

At this point, the judge snaps to life. ''Everyone sit down. I'm going to rule on this.'' For several minutes there is silence in the courtroom as the judge scribbles his decision. Miss Oliver stares out the window. Her home and over $900 in back rent are at stake.

''OK,'' he says finally, sitting up in his chair and adjusting his glasses to read the decision. Miss Oliver is ordered to post $800 (he subtracts $100 to compensate her for her aggravation) with the court by Tuesday. The court will then send inspectors and exterminators to her apartment, after which Mr. Green may collect the $800. ''It's up to you,'' he says to Miss Oliver.

The hearing has lasted about 20 minutes. By noon, Judge Dahre will also allow a laywerless, teary-eyed mother of three to remain in her apartment until the end of the month, despite repeated attempts to evict her; get another lawyerless woman's tardy welfare check speeded up so she can pay her rent; and help find temporary housing for a vagrant.

On this latter case, the judge is more lenient. ''Can't you work something out?'' he asks the landlord. ''If he doesn't live in your empty building he'll live under the expressway.'' An aide is dispatched to check neighborhood YMCAs for spare beds.

In nearly all the cases Judge Dahre will see before the day is over, one or both of the parties will be without legal counsel. Says Robert Mitchell, clerk-magistrate of the court, ''The person with legal counsel has the same chance in this court as the pro se tenants.'' Echoing his sentiments is David Esancy, the court's executive secretary. ''People can come in here by themselves and within half an hour they'll be before the judge. They can tell him their problem in their own words and he'll decide right then.''

Judge Dahre, back in his chambers, carpeted in emerald green, looks surprisingly relaxed sitting at his desk in shirt sleeves. His judicial robes hang in the closet, an exercise bike sits in the other corner. His attitude toward the court seems to reflect this informal attitude. ''The housing court is vital,'' he says. ''There's tremendous citizen access for the public - a complete absence of pomp and formality here.''

Indeed, many have criticized that informality by calling the court ''a zoo.'' One more literary-minded lawyer said it resembles ''a scene straight out of Dickens or Moliere.''

But Judge Dahre seems unfazed by such verbal jabs. Having grown up in ''a cold-water flat'' himself, in one of Boston's less desirable neighborhoods, he seems to have an empathy for the people he sees day after day. ''This is it,'' he says. ''This court is the bottom line for most of these people - people who are literally playing catch-up with their lives.'' The question he asks himself, ''Can I help resolve a case where we're actually pitting one poor person against another?'' he answers in the affirmative. ''In other courts I feel as if I am party to a charade. Here, at least I can alleviate some of the misery.''

There are those, outside legal circles, who agree.

Back in the neighborhood legal aid clinic, a large woman with stringy blond hair laughs anxiously. ''My landlord took me court to three times, and I didn't have a lawyer. But I won, and me and my kids are still in our apartment.'' She shifts self-consciously in her chair. ''Ya know, it was scary, but I did it.''

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