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.

In Part 1 of this study, we found that sending informational mailings decreased the rate of default in civil cases by about seven percentage points. While the results were practically and statistically significant, well over a majority of defendants still wound up defaulting. In Part 2 of the study, we have the opportunity to test more specific hypotheses. Can the type of letter received make defendants more likely to show up? Does the timing of receipt matter? We hope to find out answers through a new randomized control trial.

Keeping everything organized for the mailings: post-its for each randomization condition and the contents of each mailing.

In this study, pro se litigants sued in debt collection proceedings (both civil and small claims matters) will be randomized to receive one of three different letters encouraging them to appear. Some letters have cartoons, some only use text, and some include three languages in addition to English. For small claims cases, some letters will be sent out immediately after the court date is scheduled, and some letters will be mailed closer to the court dates. For civil cases, in which defendants must file an answer in order to receive a court date, we’ll randomize some people to receive additional letters that remind them to show up for their first court date.

Part 1 of the study managed to put a dent in the default rate, but there’s still a lot to be learned. RCTs are powerful tools to uncover what we need to know but are much more powerful when replicated and expanded. This RCT will try to figure out if the type of messaging in a letter matters, which is important for any legal services organization and, more broadly, for reducing default rates. This study will eventually expand to include court sites outside of BMC Central, namely to various Massachusetts district courts.

Stay tuned for future updates on this exciting sequel study!

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