With seven evaluations currently in the field and more than that number in development, the Access to Justice Lab is poised to create the most consequential empirical knowledge base ever in law. The Lab’s evaluations represent a cross-section of communities served, legal processes, and geographic areas. Highlights include the following projects.
Financial Distress Research Project
The Financial Distress Research Project is a partnership among multiple branches of government, academia (students and professors), multiple non-profit service providers, and the private sector. People who participate in the project will be a part of a randomized control trial to understand the effectiveness of attorney representation, financial counseling, and self-help materials on financial health outcomes.
The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (the “LJAF”) developed the Public Safety Assessment (the “PSA”) to provide an accurate tool to distinguish criminal defendants according to the risk that they will engage in future misconduct. Jurisdictions across the United States have begun to implement the PSA at the initial release/detention hearing at the start of a criminal case. We are conducting a randomized control trial to assess whether providing the PSA to judicial officials making initial release/detention decisions leads to reductions in the following outcomes:
- failures to appear at future hearings;
- new criminal activity;
- new violent criminal activity; and
- the number of days defendants spend incarcerated pretrial.
Problem of Default Parts II and II
We know that 95% or more of debt collection defendants lose their cases because they do not show up to court, even when they have a strong chance of winning their cases. Our debt collection studies address the question: How can legal services providers and courts persuade individuals to participate in legal processes?
Our pilot study, Problem of Default Part I, demonstrates that a well-constructed letter sent to debt collection defendants at the start of their case can more than triple the rate of defendants coming to court to contest their cases. Problem of Default Part II expands this pilot to additional sites and other materials.
Intimate Partner Violence Triage Study
When there aren’t enough resources to meet people’s legal needs, legal services providers have to decide who will receive which level of services. A legal aid organization in northeast Ohio currently triages victims or survivors of domestic violence who seek civil protection orders to one of three service levels: an offer of full representation, a telephone call plus a self-help packet, or a self-help packet alone. The Intimate Partner Violence Triage Study will randomly divide callers into a triage process guided by an attorney, or a random triage process. We will measure both the outcome in court (who obtains the court order that they were seeking), and whether the process prevents further abuse.
Our legal service provider partners identified service of process as a primary barrier to resolution in guardianship cases in Boston. The study evaluates whether or not self-help materials, including an online tool, can make a difference to individuals who cannot afford an attorney.
A randomized control trial evaluating the effectiveness of a pro bono initiative’s oversubscribed divorce practice in a large United States city. Our study randomized a person seeking a divorce to one of two options: (a) an effort to find a free attorney to represent her, or (b) a referral to existing self-help resources coupled with an offer to answer questions by telephone. Treated and control groups experienced radically different outcomes: people with an attorney were significantly more likely to have a divorce case on record within 18 months after entering the study, and were significantly more likely to have gotten the divorce they were seeking within 3 years.
Social Security Disability
A randomized control trial evaluating the effect of legal services representation in disability benefits cases before an administrative law judge. In this study, adults seeking to appeal an earlier decision about their eligibility for disability benefits were randomized to either (a) representation or (b) no representation.
Mediation in Federal Court
A randomized control trial evaluating the effect of a formal mediation session with inmates in federal prison with civil rights complaints. This study is the first of any kind to evaluate an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program rigorously on multiple dimensions, including court and party expenditure of resources, litigant opinions of the judicial process and the result, and the parties’ post-litigation relationship.