Divorce

The Problem

For the past 30 years, an increasing number of people come to court without a lawyer. As more people come to courts to access their legal rights, they are met with fewer free or low-cost legal services to help. Across the country, legal practitioners, scholars, and appellate courts have begun to question whether court procedure is effectively preventing access to justice.

Current Solutions

Courts, legal services providers, and state and local Bars have responded to the flood of people without lawyers in numerous ways, including:

  • amending ethical rules to legitimate already-existing forms of lawyer representation
  • self-help centers
  • uniform court forms
  • self-help materials
  • technology
  • and non-lawyer representation.

In 2015, the Conferences of Chief Judges and State Court Administrators passed a joint resolution adopting “the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.”

Some of the efforts to stem the tide of pro se, self-represented, or unrepresented litigants have focused on connecting people with lawyers: by increasing pro bono efforts and leveraging different technologies to connect people with free legal aid or low-cost representation. Recent efforts, however, primarily focus on alternatives to representation, and very few efforts address changes to court processes themselves.

The Study

Field operation

During the study, potential clients seeking a divorce underwent a 45-60-minute interview to determine eligibility and learn more about the details of their case.

After the interview, consenting study-eligible individuals were randomized to one of two groups:

  • Treated group: an effort by the service provider to find a pro bono attorney to represent her;
  • Control group: a referral to existing self-help resources and an offer to answer questions by telephone.

Results

We reviewed the court case files for all study participants, to review which cases successfully (a) filed for divorce in court, and (b) got divorced.

divorceinfographic

The Research Team

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

Ellen Degnan, Law Student, University of Miami School of Law

Tom Ferriss, Quantitative Analyst, Google

Roseanna Sommers, JD/PhD candidate, Yale Law School and Yale University

 

More Information

About divorce proceedings and legal rights

 

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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Social Security Disability

The Study

Field operation

To be eligible for the study, an individual must be an adult seeking to appeal an adverse decision regarding eligibility for disability benefits to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”).  The decision might have been either a denial of a request for reconsideration (under the traditional Social Security Administration (“SSA”) system) or an adverse ruling from a federal reviewing officer (under the new Disability Service Improvement (“DSI”) process).  The applicant might be seeking benefits under either the Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) program or the Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) program.

After a thorough screening and intake process, consenting individuals are randomized into one of two groups:

  • Treated group: representation by student advocate in a law school clinic
  • Control group: a self-help packet on disability appeals, as well as referral to other legal services providers, and a copy of their own intake information (to streamline the information-gathering that another legal services provider would need).

Outcomes

Randomization is currently active. When the field operation is over, we will analyze the following outcomes for both groups:

  • Were benefits awarded or denied?
  • If awarded, what amount?
  • Compliance with the randomization: did individuals in the control group obtain representation elsewhere? Did individuals in the treatment group continue with their representation?

The Research Team

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

Financial Distress

The Problem

Cartoon, legal self-help, debt collection, show me proofAs of 2014, more than 77 million people in the U.S. had at least one account reported as “in collection” on their credit reports, owing an average of $5,178 (median $1,349).   Distressed debt results in collection lawsuits, a messy and error-prone credit report, and a potential need for bankruptcy.  In other words, debt problems are legal problems, and an inability to resolve debt problems leads to legal consequences.  What proposals are out there to address the legal aspects distressed debt?  How would we know whether those proposals work?