It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the Access to Justice Lab! In April we launched the Pre-Trial Release Study in Dane County, Wisconsin. A few weeks ago we launched Part 2 of the Debt Collection Default Study in multiple court locations in Massachusetts. We are now excited to officially announce the start of what could turn into the largest RCT ever conducted in the law: the Financial Distress Research Project (“FDRP”)!
Thanks to the hard work of many, many people, the first mailings for the FDRP intervention–which has been six years in the making–were sent to recruit study participants. Five hours of folding, three printer jams, and (miraculously) zero paper cuts later, mailings are on their way to pro se defendants in consumer debt cases in seven Connecticut court locations.
The study, a partnership among academic institutions, several branches of government, legal services, and the private sector, is the first attempt to obtain rigorous evidence about what works for individuals in financial distress. There will never be enough lawyers for every consumer debt defendant who needs one; hundreds of people are sued in collection proceedings every week in CT alone.
So what’s a helpful and cost-effective alternative to direct representation? Can people advocate for themselves in these cases without a lawyer? The FDRP tests the effectiveness of financial counseling and self-help packets. The latter was crafted over years of legal and interdisciplinary research, design input, and user feedback surveys by law students and professors. There are many lessons to be learned from other fields on how to communicate complex concepts and write self-help materials that are actually accessible. To that end, we’ve tried to incorporate those lessons in everything from font choice to the verbal tone of the text t0 the inclusion of cartoons and the Lab’s inimitable character actor, Blob.
Once people enter the study they will be randomized to receive legal representation from Connecticut Legal Services (“CLS”), or they will be given a self-help packet to aid them through their small claims case. Those randomized to self-help assistance will also receive materials for assessing whether bankruptcy is the right option. If so, it will aid them through the process of bankruptcy and debt management. Participants will also be randomized to receive actual financial counseling or a placebo food safety counseling module.
In this study we’ll be collecting outcomes that extend beyond the courthouse to see how individuals in financial distress are faring in a more personal sense. Financial distress affects more than just one’s bank account; it can also carry negative repercussions for housing stability and mental health.
Stay tuned for more updates from the Lab as we move forward with this exciting RCT!