By Nicole Kerr and Ed DeLuca
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the current access-to-justice crisis in debt collection court. That is why the Access to Justice Clinic has prioritized the development of alternative reform proposals to aid the Philadelphia Municipal Court in its commitment to 100% access to justice.
This semester, the Debt Collection team — Ed DeLuca, Scott Hofman, Nicole Kerr, and Rory Kress Mandel — explored emerging models for non-lawyer assistance. Identifying court navigator programs as effective means for remedying unmet civil needs, our team developed a proposal for the implementation of a pilot Consumer Debt Court Navigator program in Municipal Court.
To inform our proposal, we interviewed leaders of existing court navigator programs in courts across the country. Additionally, to ensure the efficacy of implementing such a program in Philadelphia Municipal Court, we conducted over ten hours of court observation.
Based on leader recommendations and our observation of high default rates in debt collection cases, we proposed a proactive outreach model that would educate debt collection defendants about their legal rights. Trained navigators, equipped with contact information available from court records, would be tasked with contacting defendants before their hearings. Both by mail and over the phone, navigators would provide defendants with procedural and legal information, make referrals for legal assistance, and answer general questions. By highlighting the legal ramifications of failing to appear in court, the navigators would emphasize that defendants should appear on their court date. Navigators would also be on site to assist defendants on the day of their hearing.
Defendants who are equipped with knowledge about their legal rights and court processes will be able to make meaningful and informed decisions about their cases — the first of which, we hope, will be to appear at their hearings.