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You’ve Been Served

Who doesn’t love a great flowchart?! We at the A2J Lab certainly do. A few weeks ago, I posted about service of process in guardianship cases, illustrating via a (frankly overwhelming) diagram just how complicated the process is in the Boston area. Properly serving potentially interested parties is an important step in the petition process that is often glossed over. In fact, many petitioners often assume that filing the petition is all they have to do before showing up to court. But this disregards the essential notice that needs to be communicated in the meantime. When a legal issue is both overlooked and complex, we consider it ripe for innovation and evaluation in the name of access to justice.

And, in these contexts, it’s important to think about why certain practices have been adopted and persist. We hope that our civil procedure reflects core principles at every step. Whether it’s judicial neutrality or due process, courts would seem to have a vested interest in upholding those values. So what does the court–and we for that matter–care about with respect to notice in guardianship cases? Simply stated, justice requires that anyone who might want to contest the petition and who would reasonably want to voice their concerns can learn about the case. Fair enough. How, then, does something so self-evident and simple become so complicated? Return to the flowcharts. Is your head spinning as you try to figure out what the appropriate method of service is?!

The notice process  depends heavily a few factors: 1) who the interested parties are; 2) if the petitioner knows where they live; and 3) if the interested parties will consent to the guardianship. Even then, it’s not a matter of just signing a form; a notary almost always must attest to the signature. Sometimes the petitioner has to hire a sheriff to serve the papers. In other situations, the petitioner must purchase an ad in a print newspaper. (Remember those?)

Let’s take that route: publication. If notifying others about the petition advance justice during the guardianship petition, is this burdensome requirement likely to further that value? The newspaper only has to circulate generally where the petitioner lives, not where the interested party does (because we don’t know where or who s/he is). Furthermore, who reads the Legal Notices section of a newspaper unless they have a specific reason to do so?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all states have adopted this requirement. For example, Alaska has been particularly innovative and creative with service of process. Notice can now be published online instead of in a newspaper, eliminating some financial and procedural burdens. In fact in many states, including Massachusetts, petitioners often come into the courthouse with pictures of the notice form sent to the interested party via Facebook Messenger. Thanks to the application’s read receipt function, everyone can verify (with much more certainty) that the recipient saw the citation or summons. Users are perplexed–why wouldn’t the court  consider this successful service? If the ultimate goal is notification, why rely on antiquated communication methods that inarguably cannot lead to verified receipt by the interested party? Moreover, rules like those in Alaska are much more accessible to self-represented litigants. A civil procedure that aligns more with modern experiences and capabilities is a goal we should pursue.

Flowcharts like the ones featured on this blog are fun (in some circles!) to generate. But they are frustrating reminders of the yawning gap between the theory of access to justice and litigants’ lived experiences. We at the A2J Lab believe that improving access demands evaluating whether that gap is driven by unnecessary complications. To the extent that we can’t change those burdens overnight, maybe we can come up with new, testable solutions that empower litigants, whether represented or not. Doing so will safeguard the integrity of the justice system and its legitimacy in users’ eyes. If, through our guardianship study, we can improve successful service of process rates with self-help materials, we will have made important strides toward cutting through the procedural thicket. If not, it might be time to push for deeper reform efforts that make these dense diagrams happily obsolete.

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Student Series: Active vs. Passive Intake

Students may be on spring break right now, but our Student Series is still here! There are over forty students working with the Lab on several projects, and so far the Student Series have brought you posts by students on different teams within the Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP). This week we hear from 2L Joe Breen, who has been constructing initial mailings to send to small claims court debt collection defendants to persuade them to answer their lawsuits and inquire about the FDRP study. The outreach directs people to legal help that’s available in the courthouse, offered by legal services providers. Joe discusses below an essential component of legal services organizations; intake and outreach. Not only have we written about these issues and how they relate to triage in our own blog posts, but our Faculty Director wrote an article on the specific issue Joe brings up below; the difference between active and passive structures of intake.

Take it away, Joe!

Active v. Passive Intake

Working with clients in direct legal services has been the most meaningful part of my law school experience, but sometimes I have a feeling that I’m working with clients who are so resourceful that they would have been able to successfully represent themselves. In a world with scarce resources for legal aid, where direct service organizations are frequently making difficult triage decisions about who to serve, it concerns me that we often aren’t sure whether our intake processes are helping us amplify our impact. A large part of what drew me to the Access to Justice Lab was its emphasis on improving legal service provision through evidence-based analysis. My hope is that the Lab can help direct service organizations think critically about how they do intake.

outreachimage3There is a lot that goes into the decision to accept a client, and much could be said about specific eligibility requirements, but even before the client gets to the door, a service organization has often made a decision about whether to be “active” or “passive” in intake. All the organizations I’ve worked with while in law school have had what I would consider passive intake, meaning they open their doors and wait for potential clients to find them. When intake is passive, potential clients must overcome several hurdles before being considered for representation, including having the wherewithal to find and contact the organization and the faith that whatever their problem is can be solved. Therefore, a lot of clients who reach the organization’s door already have the makings of effective advocates. It may be that self-help materials would be just as impactful as full representation for some of these clients, but often we have no way to tell.

An alternative approach to intake would be active pursuit of clients who may not otherwise find the organization themselves. My first project with the Lab was to design an outreach letter that would go to people who had been sued for debt they may, or may not, have actually owed. Potential clients were identified through public court records and the letter was designed to help them realize their rights and encourage them to seek help from a legal services organization. The letter lowered the barrier for potential clients to access services. I hope to see more organizations think creatively about how they can reach out to potential clients who may benefit from representation, but need help taking the first step.

Read more about what we know (and don’t know) about outreach and intake by legal services providers in this paper by our Faculty Director, Jim Greiner. 

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Chris, feeling optimistic about spreading the RCT word to court administrators.

The A2J Lab Hits the Conference Circuit

A dispatch from Sophie, Chris & Erika

Over the last month, the A2J Lab decamped from snowy Boston to the rainy climes of Portland, OR for the National Association for Court Management (NACM) Midyear Meeting and blustery San Francisco for the first stand-alone Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) conference. The former gathered court administrators from around the country to improve the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary–a goal near and dear to the Lab. The latter opened with a keynote from Judge Lisa Foster, former Director of the DOJ Office for Access to Justice. She encouraged attendees to “create, innovate, [and] demonstrate” over two full days of discussions, research panels, and workshops regarding critical SRL issues. 


Student Series: Deciphering Credit Reports

Students have been hard at work this semester to continue to develop, test, and improve self-help materials that are part of the Lab’s Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP). There are over 4o students working with the Lab on projects, and within FDRP several student teams are tackling specific tasks such as bankruptcy form instructions, debt management, and applying for fee waivers. We have students figuring out the legal details of these forms as well as constructing the best designs to translate complicated information to a self-represented litigant. If you’ve been following our blog you’ve read about some of the challenges that arise along the way as students try to make legal information and forms comprehensible.

This week, we hear from Alina Wattenberg, a 3L working on credit card debt self-help packets.

The A2J Lab’s First Hackathon

Jack Frost’s Boston relative might have covered the city in snow and forced several flight cancellations, but the A2J Lab pushed through with its first “hackathon” on Monday, February 13! Thanks to videoconferencing and collaborative technology–not to mention the dedication of expert colleagues–we assembled an energizing mix of Lab staff, designers, UX experts, behavioralists, lawyers, and, most importantly, a former guardianship client. Their charge was simple: brainstorm designs for self-help materials applicable to service of process in Massachusetts guardianship matters.


The A2J Lab’s YouTube Debut

The A2J Lab is committed to producing rigorous empirical evidence to support effective innovation in legal services. We also are part of a movement to transform the legal profession into one that values–and embraces–evidence-based approaches to narrowing the justice gap. In addition to our field operations, national presentations, and published papers, the A2J Lab recently hosted its first hackathon. On the snowy morning of February 13, we brought together a fantastic mix of expert, creative minds to develop self-help materials for our guardianship service of process study. 

directorscutIn another first, we are pleased to introduce our YouTube channel!

BLOGGuardianshipFlowChart for Briefing Book

Guardianship, Service of Process, and A2J

guardinashipdraftBLOGFrom filing a petition to showing up for your first hearing, here is how you get a Minor Guardianship case started in Massachusetts.

That’s right, this diagram is just about service of process, or the steps necessary to just get the case, which can last several months, started. This diagram isn’t necessarily 100% correct either. Depending on the jurisdiction or the judge, certain types of service may be accepted with less paperwork or proof than others. Sometimes if litigants file a regular petition for guardianship after filing for temporary or emergency guardianship they must go through the service of process steps a second time. 


Student Series: Taking on Hospital Debt

As the week gets started, here’s another taste of what students working on one of the A2J Lab’s signature study, the Financial Distress Research Project, are doing. The students who have been blogging thus far have talked about their experiences in Small Claims Court as well as tackling self-help materials for complicated bankruptcy forms. And those aren’t the only two focus areas of the project; students are also entering more uncharted territory, trying their hand at creating self-help materials for hospital debt.

Today, we’ll hear from 2L Rachel Finkel, who works on the Hospital Debt team of the Financial Distress Research Project.


Student Series: Show Me Your Proof

If you’ve been following our student series, you’ve learned a bit about the math involved in filling out bankruptcy forms, the complicated world of wildcard exemptions, and the reality of Small Claims Court for many defendants. Students are tackling all of these issues as part of student teams working on the Lab’s Financial Distress Research Project, creating self-help materials and legal briefs for small claims cases and bankruptcy filings.

This week, Lauren Mercer brings us back to Small Claims Court to talk about how defendants should ask for, and then evaluate, plaintiffs’ evidence.


Student Series: It’s Not That Simple

Last week the student teams had their first meeting of the semester for the Financial Distress Research Project. And they’re pushing ahead on self-help materials! In addition to tackling the Lab’s mission to bring empirical thinking to the legal profession, students are trying their hand at understanding the alphabet soup of bankruptcy forms in order to craft the best self-help materials. It turns out, this can involve a lot of math (sometimes more math than law). Whether it’s calculating home costs, income and benefits to figure out how to apply for fee waivers, or determining what exemptions to claim, students are trying to navigate how best to represent these tasks, concisely and clearly, in self-help materials. Throughout the semester we’ll be continuing this series of student blog posts where students will talk about their work on A2J Lab projects.

Our fourth student blogger is 2L Zain Rifat, who works on the Bankruptcy team of the Financial Distress Research Project.