BERNSTEIN, ESQ., ON CHICAGO TENANTS' RIGHTS
By: Paul Bernstein, Attorney At Law
© Paul Bernstein, Esq. 1998, All Rights Reserved
Chapter 18: BE PREPARED
Going to court is a very special event. And, it can be very intimidating. It is important for you to be very well prepared for your trial in the eviction court. Here are some "tips" about how you can "put your best foot forward":
1. Dress well
Your home is your castle and a trial in the eviction court is a very special event. Lawyers wear slacks or a suit, a nice shirt and a tie if male and a proper suit or dress, if female. The judges are well groomed and wear their judicial robes. You may not have the funds to purchase a new pair of shoes and a fine suit, but you can and should dress as well as you can and be well groomed - men can get a haircut before going to court and women can wear a dress.
As you approach the judge when your case is called, the judge will be able to see that you have dressed properly and are taking the proceedings seriously. On the other hand, if you come to court wearing your gym-shoes (no matter how expensive they may be) and dirty jeans with holes in them, you will convey an impression that the proceedings before the court are not very important to you.
2. Be courteous
The judge is there because they are lawyers and have earned the right by election or appointment, or both, to hold the position of judge. During the entire eviction proceedings, be courteous and respectful of the court - they have earned the right to expect your respect. And recognize that the judge will be hearing many cases the day you are in court - angering the court by being disrespectful will not advance your cause.
Being respectful however, does not mean that you should not present your case in a focused and concerned manner - as noted, your apartment is your home. If you are respectful and courteous, the judge will most likely bend over backwards to give you a full and complete hearing.
3. Know and understand the law
Most of the law of landlord and tenant developed over centuries under what we call the "common law". In those days, the landlord was much like a king and tenants had very few rights. However, courts in America and especially in Illinois, have been realistic about changes in society and today, tenants have lots of rights. This is especially so in Chicago where all residential apartment units are covered unless you live in a building of six units or less that is owner occupied.
Thus, in Chicago, since 1986, we have the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance. Prior chapters have told you how to get a copy of the ordinance, and your landlord is required, by law, to give you a copy of a summary of the Ordinance when you first rent an apartment and when your lease is renewed.
It is very important that you read the Chicago Ordinance, understand it and that, if you have legitimate grievances, that you strictly follow the requirements of the Ordinance.
When you go to court, you will be required to tell the court and opposing counsel for the landlord (or the landlord if the landlord does not have an attorney) what the facts of your case are and what the applicable law is. It is the responsibility of the judge to determine what the facts are (testimony of the landlord and tenant often conflict and so the court must make the difficult decision of who to believe), apply the law to those facts and make a decision.
4. Be Organized
If you were going on a job interview, you would try to be as well organized as possible. If tonight was the night when you were going to propose marriage, you would prepare and have your thoughts organized.
Almost no day is bigger for tenants as when you go to eviction court to attempt to defend your position and not be evicted.
Part of being organized is being practical. If you owe the rent and have no excuse, you are going to be evicted unless you can make a deal with the landlord. Landlords have mortgages, taxes, insurance premiums and lawyers to pay and landlords rely on your monthly rental payments to pay their bills. Even terrible illness or being in the hospital due to an automobile accident is not going to get you relief from the court if your landlord refuses to give you more time to pay your rent.
When you go to trial, first recognize that the judge has a very heavy case load to deal with on most days. The judges are people, like you and me, and do want to give everyone a fair and complete hearing. But, that's why I've previously advised tenants to hire their own attorney - so that your case can be well presented.
If, for whatever reason, you have not hired an attorney, when you go to court, be very well organized and very well prepared. Let the court know just how seriously you take the matter of your eviction proceedings.
If you have sent letters to your landlord requesting repairs, have copies of those letters in hand. Have them in date-order. And, have at least three copies with you, one for the judge, one for the landlord and one for yourself. If the landlord has written you back, make certain that you have copies of those documents as well for the court and the landlord (who may not have brought those documents with them).
If you have pictures, be certain that each one is dated, and on the back, has a brief description of what the picture depicts (the dining room, the bedroom, etc.) and make certain the picture is clear - pictures do not have to be taken by professional photographers, but should be crisp and clearly show whatever it is you are trying to show.
If you have complained to the City of Chicago Building Department or other governmental agencies, or joined a tenants' union or taken any other action that is protected under the Chicago Ordinance and you have made your landlord aware of that, be certain that you can document the fact (with copies of letters you have sent to your landlord) that you have taken such steps under the Chicago Ordinance.
If you have paid the rent your landlord says you did not pay, be prepared to prove it. Receipts from the landlord are one way. Your canceled checks are another way. If you pay your rent by money order, of course, all you have is the "yellow copy" of the money order and not the original - you are going to need a copy of both sides of the original money order that you used to pay the rent in order to prove to the judge that you really did pay the rent. And, never pay the rent in cash, but if you have to, do not pay the rent without getting a receipt. Judges generally do not believe that in our enlightened world, anyone would give someone else money without getting a receipt.
Be prepared to present your case in a rational, calm and well organized fashion. You will be giving the judge what the judge needs to make a decision and making it clear that you know your rights and have acted in accordance with the law.
5. Understand your opponent
Remember that your opponent, the landlord or the landlord and the landlord's attorney, have made a decision to evict you. The landlord's attorney has a duty to vigorously represent their client, the landlord. Understand that the court proceedings is not a social gathering or a friendly debate - this is serious business. By understanding your opponent, you will not have unreasonable expectations about, from your point of view, their "objectivity" or their "fairness". Expect a battle when you go to court.
6. Have witnesses
Let's suppose that you tried to pay the rent, in cash, to your landlord, but they were not going to give you a receipt. You get to court and tell it like it was. The landlord, on the other hand, does not recall that incident and so tells the court that you never tried to pay the rent in question in cash. Now, the court must decide between two witnesses who is telling the truth - of course, the judge was not there.
In such cases, have a witness or two with you when you tender the rent in cash. If the landlord refused to take your rent or refused to give you a receipt (and therefore you did not give them the cash - what to do in such circumstances may be another chapter for another day), then you will have your witnesses to testify on your behalf.
At or about the time the events are taking place, be certain to write down the date, the time, the place, who was present, what took place, and who said what to each of the other parties present. Have your witnesses sign the paper(s). Then, send a letter to the landlord or the rental agent restating those facts and provide the landlord with a copy of your writing. Let your landlord know you have kept a written record of what happened, that you will produce the record in court and that you will have your witnesses to back you up.
In selecting witnesses, it is best to have people who are not living in your apartment and be certain that they will, most likely, be able to appear in court when the time comes. Thus, if your witness is a single mom with several young children and you don't have the funds to pay for her baby sitter, it is likely that this witness will just not be able to appear in court. Select your witnesses with care.
Be prepared! Review the Chicago Ordinance. Confirm in your mind that you have taken the necessary steps to comply with the requirements of the Ordinance. Number and date your pictures. Make the copies of your documents. Have your proof of payment of rent. Contact your witnesses and make arrangements for going to court together. "Dress for success." Practice your courtroom presentation with your friends, family and neighbors. Be prepared to feel some stress, but be prepared to keep your cool and be respectful to the court at all times.
My recommendation always is that tenants must and should have their own lawyer in court when your case goes to trial. For whatever reason, you may not choose to hire a lawyer or be able to get one. If you go it alone, following these tips may not guaranty that you will win your case, but will surely help you in that direction.
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