In the modern United States, too many lawsuits are decided by default. This is especially true in debt collection cases, where reported default rates frequently range from 60% to 95%. Default is certainly bad for defendants, but perhaps more importantly, default engenders a system in which the state publicly declares a winner to a dispute without any opportunity to assess relevant facts and apply the law. For this reason, default threatens to undermine faith in the judicial system.
Thus our study seeks to answer the question: what steps can legal services providers take to facilitate defendant attendance in court?
The Study: Part I
The Debt Collection Default Study measures what kinds of mailings from legal services providers to defendants are effective in reducing default rates in debt collection cases. To our knowledge, our study is the first of its kind to evaluate an intervention intended to reduce default rates in civil cases using a randomized control trial.
Designing self-help materials
The goal of our self-help materials was to induce debt collection defendants to (1) open, (2) read, and (3) act upon them. In terms of what action needed to be taken, our materials needed to induce a litigant to fill out three copies of an Answer form (which we would provide), mail two of those copies, receive a notice from the BMC of a scheduled court date, and appear in court on that scheduled date.
We designed interventions consisting of two forms of mailings based on research from other disciplines, including psychology, public health, and adult education.
The Research Team received debt collection case information on a weekly basis from court staff at the Boston Municipal Court. After identifying potentially study-eligible cases, we compared the defendant’s address in the court file with that in an online address-checking system, and excluded those with inconsistent addresses.
The Research Team randomized whether each defendant receives a mailing, and if so, what kind. Using different formats and messages, the mailings urge defendants to contest their cases (by filing any necessary paperwork and showing up to court) and provide information/materials useful for such a defense (such as an Answer form).
Treatment group A, the Limited treatment:
- letter from the legal services provider
- three copies of a check-box style Answer form
- business envelopes pre-addressed to the court and the plaintiff’s attorney
- map to the courthouse
- and a post-it note appropriate for a wall calendar saying “Go To Court Today!”
Treatment group B, the Maximal treatment:
- First, a postcard with the signature Blob cartoon, stating: “Dear [Recipient Name], Help is on the way. Look for me!.” Next to “me” was a hand-drawn arrow pointing to an image of Blob.
- The next day, we mailed the defendant the same manila envelope (with corresponding contents) that those in the “Limited” group received, except that the two business envelopes to the Court and to the Plaintiff’s attorney had stamps.
Control group: no mailing
We tracked two outcomes:
- Whether the defendant filed an answer, and
- Whether the defendant attended the first court hearing.
We find no difference in effectiveness as between our two mailings, but that both roughly double the rate at which defendants participate in their lawsuits. Specifically:
As compared to a randomly selected Control group with a 13% answer rate (corresponding to an 87% default rate), our “Limited” intervention group saw a 24% answer rate, and our “Maximal” intervention group saw a 24% answer rate.
The corresponding rates for whether the defendant appeared at the first scheduled court hearing were 7.5% for the Control group, 14% for the Limited group, and 15.3% for the Maximal group.
Differences between the Control versus the Limited and Maximal groups were statistically significant. Differences between the Limited and Maximal groups were not.
What this means
The results of this study shed some light on a few different areas of debate in the legal arena:
- why people obey the law and engage in official proceedings (and why they don’t)
- the role of civil legal services providers and the types of services they provide
- how courts present themselves to and interact with people without lawyers
The Study: Part II
This study builds on the smaller pilot study in Boston, and will include multiple legal service providers and multiple court locations.
By randomly varying the format and content of the package, the Research Team will learn what is necessary and cost effective to reduce default rates. Potential areas of exploration include the appearance of the external envelope; the text of the letter; whether the letter includes cartoons and/or other illustrations; the contents of the package (e.g., whether Answer forms, return envelopes, maps to courthouses, and reminder post-it notes are included); and whether the materials are translated, and if so, into what languages.
The Research Team
Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, The Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Dalié Jiménez, Associate Professor of Law, University of Connecticut School of Law
Andrea Matthews, Bureau of Consumer Protection