May 26, 2016

The Problem of Default Part I

The Problem

In the modern United States, too many lawsuits are decided by default. This is especially true in debt collection cases, where reported default rates frequently range from 60% to 95%.
Default is certainly bad for defendants, but perhaps more importantly, default engenders a system in which the state publicly declares a winner to a dispute without any opportunity to assess relevant facts and apply the law. For this reason, default threatens to undermine faith in the judicial system. Thus our study seeks to answer the question: what steps can legal services providers take to facilitate defendant attendance in court?

Current Solutions

The Study

The Debt Collection Default Study measures what kinds of mailings from legal services providers to defendants are effective in reducing default rates in debt collection cases. Mailings are cheap, easy to implement, and require no information about a defendant other than that already available from court files.

Field operation

The Research Team received debt collection case information on a weekly basis from court staff. The Research Team randomized whether each defendant receives a mailing, and if so, what kind. Using different formats and messages, the mailings urge defendants to contest their cases (by filing any necessary paperwork and showing up to court) and provide information/materials useful for such a defense (such as an Answer form).

  • Treatment group A:
  • Treatment group B:
  • Control group (C): no mailing


What this means

The Research Team

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

Andrea Matthews, Consumer Protection Bureau

Roseanna Sommers, Bigelow Teaching Fellow and Lecturer in Law, the University of Chicago Law School