A couple weeks ago, A2J Lab affiliate Daniel Bernal introduced some of the glaring gaps in access to justice that defendants in summary eviction proceedings experience in Arizona. This week, he dives a little deeper into his own fascinating research.
The Simpla Phi Solution
Five-years ago, Judge Dean Christoffel forged a partnership between the Pima County Superior Court, the University of Arizona, and the James E. Rogers College of Law with the explicit goal of making courts more accessible. This team took the name Simpla Phi Lex and primarily worked to revise pleading forms and create self-help materials for self-represented litigants.
Last year, I joined the team and led an expansion of the project to work in Pima County Justice Court. This court had over 200 different forms that it wanted to simplify and was excited to get undergraduate students involved. So, we developed an undergraduate writing course around the concept.
The semester started with my serving each of our students with a mock eviction summons and complaint. Three days later, on the day of their hearing, I showed up to court in my best suit to serve in the role of attorney for the landlord—quite possibly one of my favorite days on the job. While the students all preformed incredibly well before our judicial partners, only 1 out of 19 students had deciphered the somewhat opaque pleading documents well enough to realize that he had a cognizable defense and should file an answer.
From there, students spent the semester investigating, interviewing, and writing. They compared our court’s pleading documents with other forms across the state and the country. They surveyed the literature on how self-help might best be designed. They completed usability testing and cognitive interviews with over 60 court clients. They re-wrote the pleading forms and began to create self-help materials. They interviewed more clients. They revised and redrafted.
It’s taken an additional semester and several more focus groups and interviews, but these collaboratively-created documents are almost finished. Both in English and in Spanish. A special thank you to the team (pictured below) who made that happen!
And now, we want to test whether they work.
Our study analyzes whether self-help materials impact tenant knowledge of their rights, understanding of the process, and ultimately outcomes of their cases. After pretesting for knowledge and understanding with convenience samples, the field experiment will randomly select thousands of tenants to receive self-help materials in the mail the day after an eviction action is filed against them. Then, we will use official court data to compare outcomes between tenants who received the materials and tenants who didn’t. We hope that this study will give us insight not only on whether these specific materials can impact tenants experiencing eviction in Arizona, but also demonstrate whether self-help materials work at all.
Many courts across the country are willing to make themselves more accessible. But we all have limited time, resources, and personnel. This time, instead of simply moving along to the next pleading documents, we want to test what works and what doesn’t. If self-help materials can be proven to be effective, perhaps more partnerships like Simpla Phi Lex and the Lab will spring up across the country—increasing access-to-justice not only in our own backyards, but in all courts across the United States.