Today we hear from A2J Lab Affiliate Daniel W. Bernal, a J.D./Ph.D. student at the James E. Rogers College of Law and the University of Arizona. Daniel has been conducting research on evictions in Arizona with an eye toward access gaps in summary proceedings. His research is culminating in an RCT (!) testing the effectiveness of self-help materials for pro se tenant litigants. We’ll hear from Daniel in a series of blog posts.
Daniel, take it away!
Eviction in Arizona
Tenants facing eviction face more than just the loss of their home. As locks are changed, children are ripped out of school, credit-scores plummet, and many families are forced to accept substandard housing that deteriorates health and jeopardizes safety. As Matthew Desmond concludes, eviction isn’t only a condition of poverty, it is a cause of it.
Because of these high stakes, most advocates take a civil Gideon approach—believing that more lawyers are the answer. But representation is costly, may not always improve outcomes, and—even if it does—may not be the best use of resources in states like Arizona where tenants have very little chance of success in court. Perhaps advocates need to look towards other solutions to making housing court more accessible—or start by testing solutions that have long existed.
Maybe self-help materials?
Ever since the plain language movement, courts and judges alike have looked towards making the law more understandable and legal documents more accessible. Nevertheless, while the creation of self-help documents is a common practice among pro se advocates, little research has been done on their effectiveness. As the Lab’s director recently wrote: “New self-help materials need to be subjected to testing so stunningly absent in the context of old self-help materials.” If self-help materials can be proven to be effective, perhaps more of them will be developed and tested across the nation—increasing access-to-justice nationwide. The Lab is leading the charge on this (in studies like the Problem of Default)—by both creating innovative materials and subjecting them to testing.
This testing is particularly important in places like Arizona—where the problem of eviction remains little-studied and tenants have only a small chance of winning. In contrast, most other eviction studies have focused on jurisdictions like Massachusetts or New York, where greater statutory protections exist for tenants. Drawing from our baseline data, let me describe evictions in Arizona this way:
In Arizona, eviction is like a rattlesnake strike: quick and deadly. Hearings are set as soon as 3 days after filing. Many tenants don’t even show up. And those who do, lose. Taking Pima County as an example, 83% of the 13,152 eviction actions were “disposed” in favor of the landlord in 2016. This means that more than 8 of out every 10 tenants lose. In contrast, in New York, the odds are closer to 1 out of 2.
When it comes to eviction, landlords toss a coin in New York. In Arizona, they roll loaded dice.
Unfortunately, these desert odds may be closer to the norm in many jurisdictions. Which means that a civil Gideon right to representation—even if it does help in some cases—might not be the most cost-effective way to ensure access to justice in these localities. It’s probably not feasible to find enough lawyers to cover over 13,000 cases each year. But, if each of those 13,000 tenants has accessible information about their case and their rights, perhaps the right tenants will seek out a lawyer or show up to court to advocate for themselves.
Self-help materials may improve tenant understanding of their case, awareness of local resources—like volunteer lawyers—and perhaps even their case outcomes. And, if self-help materials can be empirically shown to do this—then, advocates can invest more resources into making them better. Or, they can use what they’ve learned to change the court and its pleading documents to better facilitate client participation.
In this post, I’ve set the stage for the problem of eviction in Arizona. In the next, I’ll describe our approach to developing and testing tenant self-help materials for tenants. In the third, I’ll discuss our study on whether pleading-form design influences tenant knowledge.