September 18, 2018 | ° F

University provides free legal services

Whether it is to dispute an off-campus housing lease or desireing representation in court, the University is offering an outlet for students to address any of their legal concerns with a service that is, for the most part, free of charge.

Student Legal Services opened its doors to University students this semester, offering mostly free legal counsel for students with legal concerns.

The office specializes in issues with landlord-tenant relationships, which Director for Student Legal Services Donald Heilman said is a huge problem for off-campus students.

"It's often their first contract that they sign, and they often do it without attorney assistance," he said. "If you have an issue with your landlord, you can come in here and see me confidentially so I can sort what the legal issues are for you and try to resolve them."

By allowing off-campus students to obtain his services for free, leases can be reviewed and problems with a landlord can be avoided before signing it, Heilman said.

"The first time that a student sits down with someone who is actually licensed to review a lease is with me, and that is after they signed it and half the problems have arisen," he said. "[So] the No. 1 benefit all revolves around that [opportunity]."

In conjunction with Off-Campus Housing Service, Student Legal Services will also provide an arbitration process for landlords and tenants in order to work out their differences, Heilman said.

Student Legal Services is currently in the process of designing an educational program for off-campus students in order to detail what it means to sign a lease and how one reviews it, he said.

"Before [students] are out looking, they can come to one of our workshops and learn about signing a lease — what the pitfalls are and the things to look out for," he said. "We're also going to design a landlord outreach program for landlords that might be interested."

Student Legal Services will also hold several nights in which, for a rough estimate of $25 to $35, students can have an attorney review their lease and address concerns.

"You come in with your lease. You sit down and get a review of that lease with an attorney," he said. "[The attorney] will generate a letter to the landlord saying, ‘I'm their attorney. This is the stuff I want fixed or corrected if anything needs to be.'"

The idea to open Student Legal Services stemmed from talks with Vice President for Student Affairs Gregory S. Blimling, who said many off-campus students are desperate for legal advice on their lease.

"Based upon that conversation, we established [Heilman's] office as a way to assist off-campus students primarily but on-campus students as well with landlord-tenant disputes and the issues that would grow out of it," he said.

Many students do not understand the relationship between a landlord and tenant, which affects the way students sign a lease, Blimling said.

"[Heilman] is in a position, as an attorney, to be able to explain those contracts and to [help people] understand the provisions of those contracts," he said. "Also, when a landlord fails to keep his or her side, [he suggests] what recourse a student can have in that relationship."

Although the primary focus of Student Legal Services are issues dealing with landlord-tenant relationships, it could potentially expand in the future, Blimling said.

"If a student came there with another kind of legal problem, it would depend on what the problem was," he said. "[Heilman's] office can not represent any student in any kind of legal issues, so they can't actually represent them in court."

This does not mean other legal concerns cannot be brought to Student Legal Services, since they have several extensive referral networks to provide students with, Heilman said.

"One referral network will be a list of attorneys approved by the University who have already agreed that they will see students either for free for a 20-minute consultation or at a very discounted consultation fee rate based on their specialty," he said.

Nels Lauritzen, an attorney in New Brunswick who specializes in helping tenants, is one of the lawyers in the referral network.

Lauritzen said he is always available to help students deal with landlords.

"When I heard about [Student Legal Services], I was eager to join," he said. "It just looked like another great opportunity to help serve the Rutgers off-campus student population."

Lauritzen has worked closely with tenants since September 2003 and offered legal counsel through Rutgers Free Legal Clinic until it was discontinued in 2008.

"I'm very accessible and students often see me on the street. I live in New Brunswick and I work in New Brunswick," Lauritzen said. "I'm very accessible and I've always helped out students for the last seven years."

Heilman also works closely with the Middlesex County Bar Association, another referral service for students, and is currently working on a specific service for University students.

"[They] are only one of two American Bar Association accredited and approved referral services in the state," he said. "They likewise agree to see students for a 20-minute consultation and have the same discounted fee arrangement. For many of the cases, that fee is $75 an hour."

By offering his services free of charge and providing other attorneys at a discounted rate, Heilman said it helps students save money in what would otherwise be a costly process.

"It can really set you back [financially]," he said. "In an addition to losing your deposit, if you had to pay an attorney to fight for it and that attorney is unsuccessful, attorney fees are anywhere from $150 to $300 per hour."

Jack Yoon, chair of the Legislative Affairs Committee in the Rutgers University Student Assembly, found out about Student Legal Services and became interested in how the office provides legal referrals for students.

"[Heilman] told me not only do they refer people, but they also give free legal advice and that Student Legal Services would see itself as a representative for the undergraduate students here," said Yoon, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. "I thought that was really good and necessary."

Yoon acknowledged the value of an opportunity for University students to receive free legal advice for their concerns.

"You normally wouldn't have access to that as a student and that's why it is exciting," he said. "It is a venue where students can go to fix their legal matters and solve for free. That has never happened at Rutgers."

In agreement with Yoon, RUSA Internal Affairs Chair John Aspray said Student Legal Services would advance the renting knowledge for both tenants and landlords while decreasing lease disputes at the same time.

"On the RUSA side of things, we are working to advise [Heilman] on various cases that are happening or anything that we hear about," said Aspray, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. "RUSA is [also] putting together a booklet called ‘Your Rights as a Tenant,' and he is going to assist us in fact checking it."

Aspray said there must be more education on lease signing and renting for off-campus students, adding most do not know their rights.

"Many people consider renting as though you are sleeping over someone's house," he said. "[Students] don't actually perceive that you have legal rights regarding your privacy and property through the lease you signed."

Aspray said this creates a multitude of issues dealing with security deposits, privacy and many other lease concerns. But he added these are issues Student Legal Services will help clear up for prospective and current off-campus students.

"In general, Heilman's office is definitely going to come into use for a lot of students," he said.

Devin Sikorski

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