Housing Court Study

D. James Greiner, Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, and Jonathan Philip Hennessy, “How Effective are Limited Legal Assistance Programs? A Randomized Experiment in a Massachusetts Housing Court”  (2012).

We persuaded entities conducting a civil Gideon pilot program in summary eviction cases to allow us to randomize which potential clients would receive offers of traditional attorney-client relationships from oversubscribed legal aid staff attorneys and which would be referred to a lawyer for the day program. We examine outcomes related to whether matters not yet in litigation reached court, possession of the unit, monetary consequences of non-payment of rent cases, and court burden. We find no statistically significant evidence that the Provider’s offer of full, as opposed to limited, representation had a large (or any) effect on any outcome of substantive import. We explore several possible interpretations of our results, and we caution against both over-interpretation and under-interpretation.

District Court Study

D. James Greiner, Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, and Jonathan Hennessy, “The Limits of Unbundled Legal Assistance: A Randomized Study in a Massachusetts District Court and Prospects for the Future,” 126 Harvard Law Review 901 (2012).

We persuaded entities conducting two civil Gideon pilot programs to randomize which potential clients would receive offers of traditional attorney-client relationships from professional service provider staff attorneys and which would receive only limited (“unbundled”) assistance. In both pilot programs potential clients were defendants in housing eviction proceedings, and both programs were oversubscribed. In this Article, we report the results of one of these two resulting randomized control trials, which we label the “District Court Study,” after the type of the court in which it took place. In the District Court Study, almost all study-eligible eviction defendants received limited assistance in the form of help in filling out answer and discovery request forms, and most also attended an instructional session on the summary eviction process. After receiving this limited assistance, each member of a randomly selected treated group received an offer of a traditional attorney-client relationship from one of the legal services provider’s staff attorneys; each member of the corresponding randomly selected control group received no such offer. We compare outcomes for the treated (offered traditional representation from a service provider staff attorney) group versus the control (no such offer) group on a variety of dimensions, focusing primarily on possession of the unit, financial consequences of the litigation, and measures of court burden.

At least for the clientele involved in this District Court Study, a clientele recruited and chosen by the service provider’s proactive, timely, specific, and selective outreach and intake system, an offer of full representation mattered. Approximately two thirds of defendants in the treated group, versus about one-third of defendants in the control group, retained possession of their units at the end of litigation. Using a highly conservative proxy for financial consequences, treated group defendants received payments or rent waivers worth a net of 9.4 months of rent per case, versus 1.9 months of rent per case in the control group. Both results were statistically significant. Meanwhile, although treated cases did take longer to reach judgment, the offer of representation caused no increase in court burden as measured by other, more salient metrics.

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Unemployment Representation Study

James Greiner and Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, “Randomized Evaluation in Legal Assistance: What Difference Does Representation (Offer and Actual Use) Make?“, 121 Yale Law Journal 2118 (2011).

We report the results of the first of a series of randomized evaluations of legal assistance programs. This series of evaluations is designed to measure the effect of both an offer of and the actual use of representation, although it was not possible in the first study we report here to measure constructively all effects of actual use. The results of this first evaluation are unexpected, and we caution against both over-generalization and under-generalization.

Specifically, the offers of representation came from a law school clinic, which provided high-quality and well-respected assistance in administrative “appeals” to state administrative law judges (ALJs) of initial rulings regarding eligibility for unemployment benefits (these “appeals” were actually de novo mini-trials). Our randomized evaluation found that the offers of representation from the clinic had no statistically significant effect on the probability that an unemployment claimant would prevail in the “appeal,” but that the offers did delay proceedings by (on average) about two weeks. Actual use of representation (from any source) also delayed the proceeding; we could come to no firm conclusions regarding the effect of actual use of representation (from any source) on the probability that claimants would prevail. Keeping in mind the high-quality and well-respected nature of the representation the law school clinic offered and provided, we explore three possible explanations for our results, each of which has implications for delivery of legal services.

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The Problem of Default

The Problem

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.
Cartoon of Blog mailing answer forms.

Field operation

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

Results

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:

Chart comparing answer rates in debt collection cases

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.

 

 

appearance-rates

 

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

Field operation

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

More Information

About this study and previous research
About debt collection and default rates