Top 10 A2J Research Priorities: #5

We’re back with our Top 10 A2J Research Priorities YouTube series! #5 on the list is “inducing action.”

As a reminder, we at the Lab have come up with a list of what we consider to be the top 10 access to justice research priorities. This list will be published weekly on our YouTube channel, in quick 2-3 minute videos to wake you up and get you excited about how ripe the field of access to justice is for experimentation, research, and, of course, RCTs.

Here’s our fifth installment:

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Guest Post: Another RCT Tackling Failure to Appear, Part I

Today’s guest post comes from two Harvard Ph.D. students in Public Policy and Economics, respectively, Helen Ho and Natalia Emmanuel. Helen and Natalia are affiliates of the Lab and have been working on their own randomized control trial (“RCT”) focused on failures to appear (“FTAs”) for arraignments. If you’ve been following our blog you might have read about FTA in connection to the Pre-Trial Release Study underway in Dane County, WI. Helen and Natalia’s study focuses specifically on interventions to reduce FTA. This post is a first in a two-part series describing their study.

Take it away, Helen and Natalia!

*   *   *

The Problem of Failing to Appear

We’re Ph.D. students in Economics and Public Policy working with the Access to Justice Lab on an RCT to reduce FTAs for arraignments. This post is a first in a series describing our study and our experiences with setting up a RCT.

It’s surprisingly easy to miss a court date for a traffic citation. Hearings are usually scheduled weeks in advance, and one’s citation slip is the only record of the hearing date. If someone misplaces that citation or forgets what the officer who made the stop said (in what was probably a stressful moment), a court date can come and go without notice.

However, not showing up for a hearing — what is called in court-speak a “failure to appear” — can be serious. Many courts impose fines and fees for FTAs. One’s driver’s license can be canceled or suspended. A bench warrant for an arrest usually issues. Most of these consequences follow automatically from not showing up to court. Thus, what started out as a minor interaction with the criminal justice system—a traffic violation or staying too late in a public park—can escalate into a much weightier legal problem involving arrest and legal debt.

Given these consequences, it seems like a no-brainer to either resolve a case before the hearing or to stay on top of the court date. Yet, in about 20% of cases in our study site, the defendant did not show up to the hearing.

FTAs not only create problem for defendants, they also can be very problematic for the courts themselves. FTAs lead to uneven and unpredictable caseloads, which cost taxpayers additional money. One study estimated that each FTA can cost the court system between $70 and $80.

From the court’s perspective, it isn’t entirely clear why defendants aren’t showing up. Getting a ticket, can be a forgettable event for one person; for another it’s a formidable one. But the court has no way of knowing if people fail to appear to their hearings because forgetfulness, scheduling conflicts, emotional barriers, or myriad other reasons. Not knowing the source of the problem makes it hard to know what the court should do to reduce FTAs.

We became interested in this question because reducing FTAs will help individual defendants and the criminal justice system. FTAs are costly for defendants (who may face another arrest and additional sanctions), for courts (that have to expend resources tracking down absent defendants), and for taxpayers (who pay for those systemic costs). We hope that by increasing the likelihood that defendants show up for court, they can deal with small legal issues before they take on more serious consequences resulting from an FTA. We also hope that courts will experience real efficiency gains.

We are working with a court system that is eager to reduce its FTA rate and that embraces evidence-driven solutions. Our intervention is designed to reduce FTAs and, in the process, uncover the main reasons why defendants don’t show up. That intervention is a set of court date reminders, which will be varied in an RCT framework.

A randomized evaluation is a great tool for understanding the causes and reducing the consequences of FTA. It is relatively simple to randomly select which defendants will receive which type of court date reminder. We will use our randomly selected groups to pilot new interventions and test them against what previous studies have found to be the most effective formats.

Stay tuned for more study details in a future post!

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We Need Your Help with the Financial Distress Research Project!

Help the Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP) Over Its First Hurdle

by Marie Lawrence, A2J Lab Summer Research Associate

In case you missed it, the Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP) officially launched in early June! (Read our launch post here.) Over the past month, the A2J Lab has mailed more than 2,000 letters to people being sued in debt collection cases in Connecticut. Our letters recruit defendants into the study, which offers user-friendly self-help materials or direct representation in their small claims cases. After more than six years preparing to launch this large-scale effort, it’s gratifying to be finally on our way.

There’s only one hiccup: people aren’t enrolling.

We know recruiting people into a field study is tricky business, and the average response rate to standard direct mail is in the ballpark of 3% when the sender and recipient don’t have a preexisting relationship. But we thought we could do a little better than the industry standard. After all, in a previous experiment with small claims defendants in Boston (The Problem of Default, Part I), we developed a behaviorally-informed mailer that persuaded 20% of recipients to answer their lawsuits! We started off the FDRP study using a very similar mailer, and estimated we’d need just 4% of recipients to enroll in order to finish the study on time and on budget. No problem, we thought.

But like most error-proofed plans, something has gone awry. Our study’s viability depends on at least 12 defendants enrolling every week. Now in our sixth week of the study, we have just 16 enrolled total, with a couple dozen more in the pipeline.

So, what should we do? What’s the best way to induce pro se litigants to enroll in a study offering free legal help? We’re reexamining the latest literature to figure out how to catch their attention and persuade them to contact our field partner, Connecticut Legal Services. For now, we’re sending this letter in a white #10 (standard business) envelope with handwritten address, adhesive stamp, and a small image of our cartoon protagonist “Blob” in the return address space.

What do you think we should do to boost enrollment? We invite you to send your ideas to improve our mailer and get FDRP back on track.

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Top 10 A2J Research Priorities: #4

Happy Monday! We’re back with our Top 10 A2J Research Priorities YouTube series. This time, Faculty Director Jim Greiner talks about the effectiveness of different service levels.

As a reminder, we at the Lab have come up with a list of what we consider to be the top 10 access to justice research priorities. This list will be published weekly on our YouTube channel, in quick 2-3 minute videos to wake you up and get you excited about how ripe the field of access to justice is for experimentation, research, and, of course, RCTs.

Here’s our fourth installment:

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Guest Post: Eviction in Arizona Part III, Profit in the Pleading

A2J Lab affiliate Daniel W. Bernal has previously introduced us to eviction in Arizona and his own research. This week he discusses how randomized research might inform new court rules.

Profit in the Pleading

The cover of the English language version of eviction self-help materials developed by A2J Lab Affiliate Daniel Bernal and his team.

If you are a tenant facing eviction in Arizona, it is likely that the pleading materials you receive were created by the landlord who is trying to evict you. This is a problem for tenants. Landlords—and their lawyers—have absolutely no incentive to make these materials understandable to the people experiencing eviction. If tenants don’t understand why they are being evicted or how they can defend themselves, then they might be likely to skip their court date. Doing so–defaulting–is a virtually automatic win for landlords and their attorneys, who can handle more cases and charge more competitive rates. Landlords can kick ‘em out quick and avoid costly litigation. …

Correction: Top 10 A2J Research Priorities #3

*Last week we tried to reintroduce our Top 10 A2J Research priorities YouTube series, but unfortunately posted the second video again. Here is the correct video, where Faculty Director Jim Greiner talks about triage in the criminal context.

It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve posted a Top 10 video, so as a reminder, we at the Lab have come up with a list of what we consider to be the top 10 access to justice research priorities. This list will be published on our YouTube channel, in quick 2-3 minute videos to wake you up and get you excited about how ripe the field of access to justice is for experimentation, research, and, of course, RCTs.

Here’s our third installment:

 

 

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Cartoon, legal self-help, courtroom, asserting rights

Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP) Launches!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the Access to Justice Lab! In April we launched the Pre-Trial Release Study in Dane County, Wisconsin. A few weeks ago we launched Part 2 of the Debt Collection Default Study in multiple court locations in Massachusetts. We are now excited to officially announce the start of what could turn into the largest RCT ever conducted in the law: the Financial Distress Research Project (“FDRP”)!

Guest Post: Acesso à Justiça: O Grande Desafio / Access to Justice: The Great Challenge

Jéssica Raiane

The A2J Lab receives many comments, inquiries, and questions via the website. Most come from U.S. attorneys and researchers. From time to time, though, we are lucky to hear from others around the world committed to making their court systems more open and their legal procedures more transparent. One such kindred spirit is Jéssica Raiane, an attorney living in Goianésia, Goias, Brazil. She kindly has shared her thoughts on the challenges facing A2J proponents in her home country. The original Portuguese post is followed by an English translation.

Problem of Default Study Part 2 Launches!

And we’re off!

The Brooke Courthouse in downtown Boston.

Last week we launched Part 2 of the Debt Collection Default Study, kicking off with Boston Municipal Court (BMC) Central Division civil and small claims cases.

To set the scene: about 65-90% of people who are sued in debt collection proceedings across the country default, or lose their cases, because they don’t show up to court. At the BMC and many other courts in the Boston metro area, volunteer lawyers stand ready to assist defendants when they do show up. People might not show up for a variety of reasons. Maybe they think the debt is paid already. The plaintiff company might have the wrong person. The defendant is afraid of appearing in court. Or, she doesn’t know what’s expected of her from the Court Notice. Whatever the reason, access to justice surely suffers when half of the players don’t show up to the game.

Guest Post: Eviction in Arizona Part II, The Simpla Phi Solution

A couple weeks ago, A2J Lab affiliate Daniel Bernal introduced some of the glaring gaps in access to justice that defendants in summary eviction proceedings experience in Arizona. This week, he dives a little deeper into his own fascinating research.

The Simpla Phi Solution

Five-years ago, Judge Dean Christoffel forged a partnership between the Pima County Superior Court, the University of Arizona, and the James E. Rogers College of Law with the explicit goal of making courts more accessible. This team took the name Simpla Phi Lex and primarily worked to revise pleading forms and create self-help materials for self-represented litigants.