Students discuss their work on “Six Practical Ways Courts Can Reduce Default Judgments”

– by Adam Karbeling and Jessie Hemmons

Adam Karbeling and Jessie Hemmons, 2L students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, authored “Six Practical Ways Courts Can Reduce Default Judgments in Debt Collection Cases,” described in more detail in a separate post. Here, Adam and Jessie comment on their experience in developing the report.

Consumer debt defendants are subjected to default judgments when they miss their hearings. When this happens, debt plaintiffs win without needing to prove their cases on the merits, and defendants lose without being heard. We looked at the reasons why debt defendants commonly miss their hearings, and found that it is often due to non-negligent factors such as improper service, confusion from complicated forms and processes, and being misled by the other party.

It is clear that courts should seek to reduce the high rate of default judgments as a matter of justice. Our report aims to assist with such efforts by listing and describing six initiatives that would help courts address the issue. Our solutions would promote increased hearing attendance and procedural fairness. The aim of our report is to move the conversation toward the actual implementation of these ideas, so we chose feasible and effective initiatives that have been tested in other jurisdictions.

Jessie added some reflections connected to her work before coming to law school:

Coming from a background in behavioral economics, where my work was focused on convincing physicians to make changes to their longstanding clinical practices, I adapted this strategy to support my legal advocacy in the Access to Justice Clinic. In my prior profession, I had learned that promoting change through written materials is effective when: a) the information is communicated concisely; b) questions are answered preemptively; c) and instructions for implementation are provided. Brain science has shown that taking in new information while working in a very high paced environment, filled with packed schedules and information overload is – simply – difficult. Thus, creating effective advocacy materials for professionals in an overloaded informational space has become a bit of an art form, incorporating lessons learned from neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral science while also respecting the intellectual capacity of the reader.

Keeping this in mind, my partner and I incorporated these learnings to create an advocacy piece aimed at reducing default judgments in consumer court cases in Philadelphia. We drilled the report down to the bones to decide our main objective: getting the court to implement strategies to reduce default judgments in consumer debt cases. We then faced a choice: take a holistic approach and focus on systemic change or promote tangible strategies to mitigate issues quickly to help defendants in real time.

We chose the latter, as this course is relatively short in duration, and the problems are affecting people every single day. We wanted to focus on solutions that could be implemented with near immediacy. So, we focused on a few techniques employed in other jurisdictions that could be relatively easy to implement and support a reduction in default judgments (due to failure to appear) quickly. We made sure to include examples of how these strategies have been deployed by other jurisdictions to assuage any fears that “it just can’t be done.” While our report focuses on solutions that do not resolve the underlying causes of due process issues related to default judgments in consumer debt cases, we hope we have contributed to this space by providing easy-to-implement solutions to work as a bridge while the systemic issues get addressed.