As of yesterday, September 5, a new A2J Lab study is in the field at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in downtown Boston!
Together with our partners at the Boston Court Service Center (“CSC”) and the Volunteer Lawyers Project (“VLP”) of the Boston Bar Association, we are evaluating (via RCT, of course) whether self-help materials can make a difference for court users seeking guardianship over incapacitated adults or minors. CSC and VLP reported high rates of return visits from users they assisted with filling out petitions. Why? Those petitioners often got stuck trying to navigate the often-labyrinthine service of process requirements.
A previous blog entry revealed just how confusing the process of service can be. Petitioners, most of whom are not lawyers, have to: (1) identify “interested parties,” many of whom are not obvious candidates; (2) determine the proper method of service; (3) effectuate service; and (4) return proof of service to the Probate and Family Court. Completing the process exactly as described is equally important. Unless parties complete all the steps in the correct order, the guardianship matter cannot proceed.
Because the process is complicated and the constituencies served have limited access to legal resources (beyond the excellent help of the CSC and VLP), the Lab’s familiar promotion and development of self-help materials seemed like a natural response. The associated RCT will lead to randomized provision of printed materials (developed in large part at our first hackathon) for both adult or minor guardianship cases and in English or Spanish. Once again, Hallie Jay Pope, the intrepid leader of the Graphic Advocacy Project, designed vivid flowcharts, “happy maps,” and new manifestations of the Lab’s favorite humanoid, Blob, to enrich the paper product. In addition, minor guardianship petitioners randomized to receive the hard copy booklets will also gain access to an online tool developed by Bill Palin, the Access to Justice/Technology Fellow with Harvard Law’s clinical programs. That site walks users through their unique legal needs, much like the software pioneered by TurboTax and other online service providers. The RCT will compare rates of successful service, among other outcomes, between the treatment and control groups.
What happens now? The first steps are randomizing cases and letting users go forth with service of process; that’s the part that began yesterday. We’ll start collecting data later this month. Stay tuned here for continued updates on the project!