The Problem

Service of process can be a very complicated step in obtaining legal guardianship. The phrase “service of process” alone is a confusing one.

Petitioners, most of whom are not lawyers, have to: (1) identify “interested parties,” many of whom are not obvious candidates; (2) determine the proper method of service; (3) effectuate service; and (4) return proof of service to the Probate and Family Court. Completing the process exactly as described is equally important. Service isn’t just a legal formality; it’s a crucial part of the petition. If interested parties, i.e., those who might want to contest the petition aren’t notified, due process concerns would arise. Failing to serve within the prescribed timeline will stall the petition.

People who have gone through the process have described the paperwork as overly complicated, repetitive, and time-consuming. Worse, a significant number of petitioners fail to reach a judge at all—not because of the substance or validity of their case, but because they have failed to overcome the procedural hurdles standing in the way of having a case heard on the merits.

Current Solutions

Courts and legal aid organizations provide individual assistance explaining court procedures. Courts have, for example, made attempts at drafting checklists or other instructions about the process. Many legal service providers develop their own self-help materials or employ different techniques to get litigants to remember at least some of these very complicated steps. Some tell litigants to come back once they receive a new piece of mail from the court, so that the next step can be explained to them in a way that is more concrete and obvious. Repeat visits, in-person explanations, and drafting instructions all take significant time and energy that attorneys could otherwise spend assisting more court users. Are these solutions having any effect on litigants’ ability to navigate the court procedure and get their first hearing in front of a judge?

The Study

In partnership with the Boston Court Service Center and the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, the Lab’s Guardianship Service of Process study evaluates whether self-help materials can make a difference for court users navigating the complex web of court procedures to initiate a guardianship case.

The Guardianship Service of Process Study, which launched in early September 2017, tests Lab-designed self-help materials. Participants receive printed materials (developed in large part at our first hackathon) on a randomized basis for both adult or minor guardianship cases and in English or Spanish. In addition, minor guardianship petitioners randomized to receive the hard copy booklets will also gain access to an online tool developed by Bill Palin, the Access to Justice/Technology Fellow with Harvard Law School’s clinical programs. That site walks users through their case to provide personalized instructions, using new guided interview software similar to TurboTax. The RCT will compare rates of successful service, among other outcomes, between the treatment and control groups.

If self-help packets or a new tech tool can help people file for guardianship and then correctly complete service of process, then legal services providers know what types of resources to invest in and how best to allocate their limited resources. And if the self-help materials aren’t at all effective, perhaps we can learn something about the procedural hurdles and have a better understanding of how these hurdles themselves may need to change.

 

The Research Team

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, The Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law at Harvard Law School

Chris Griffin, Research Director, The Access to Justice Lab

Erika Rickard, Associate Director of Field Research, The Access to Justice Lab

With intervention design thanks to our affiliates,

Bill Palin, Developing Justice, Harvard Law School

Hallie Jay Pope, Graphic Advocacy Project