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. 

The need for self-help is evident in this flowchart. Serving papers in a guardianship case can be a crazy back-and-forth process that varies depending on the minor and interested parties involved, as well as the type of guardianship for which the litigant is petitioning. If service of process can’t be properly completed, a hearing is not scheduled and the case cannot move forward. Explaining service of process can be, understandably, a time consuming yet necessary activity, for both legal aid providers and the pro se litigants themselves. This is especially true if litigants have to come back to legal service providers in order to understand what to do next, or make mistakes and miss deadlines that cause them to have to start the whole process over again.  This is why the A2J Lab is interested in this issue, and hosting a design hackathon this coming Monday, February 13th to take the first steps toward answering the question: What kind of paper or tech self-help can get pro se litigants through this confusing process? We’re bringing together legal aid attorneys, clients, designers, and behavioralists to combine brain power and creativity to come up with quality materials that are new, innovative, and worth (after their creation) testing in the field.

Many legal service providers develop their own self-help material on the fly, 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 now that the court has sent out the necessary papers. 

Wouldn’t it be great to develop comprehensive self-help material for this process, and then see if that material even works? The A2J Lab isn’t just interested in creating self-help materials, but rather creating and then testing them to see if they work. 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.

Those starting guardianship cases shouldn’t be left to navigate this complicated web of a flowchart alone. Moving towards greater access to justice means finding out how best to use limited resources (like time and people) to help pro se litigants. In order to do that, we need to be testing new ways of providing aid to know what works and what doesn’t, and to better understand the hidden hurdles at play.  So stay tuned to updates, pictures, and tweets as we launch our first self-help hackathon this Monday! 

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