Navigators could help pro se defendants in debt-collection court

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.

A user-friendly court web site for Philadelphia

Students in the Access to Justice Clinic spent some time this year studying the web site of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and Municipal Court (collectively, the First Judicial District, or FJD). Because our focus is on getting more legal information and help to people who need it, we explored the site from the perspective of the public rather than that of legal professionals. We were especially interested in whether unrepresented folks and those who help them (friends, family, community partners) would find the site helpful.

Students summarized their observations in a set of slides, Redesign of the FJD Website, as well as a more detailed report. And, in a cross-campus collaboration, students of Prof. Bryan Satalino (Tyler School of Art and Architecture) came up with visual design ideas for the site.

As all the students quickly recognized, unrepresented people who visit a court web site are typically looking for a concrete answer – for example, how to respond to (or file) a landlord-tenant or small-claims complaint, how to modify a child support or custody order, how to deal with a debt-collection case, or how to obtain a court record. But many sites do not lead with answers to these sorts of questions. Instead, they “welcome” visitors with complex descriptions of court structures and processes, lists of administrative orders, compilations of oddly-named forms and rules, and other material that may not seem relevant — and may be overwhelming and even scary.

To its credit, the First Judicial District is taking a different approach. Just last week, Municipal Court unveiled reorganized pages designed to take people quickly to the information they need, and to communicate information in friendlier, more understandable language. (Check out the new landlord-tenant case page for an example.)  Common Pleas Court has made significant improvements on its pages as well, with more to come.

Providing user-friendly information on court web sites is just a step toward narrowing the “justice gap,” but it’s an important step. We applaud the FJD for its efforts, and we appreciate its openness to hearing community voices, including those of our students.

Relieving the legal burdens on unrepresented defendants in debt-collection cases

  • By Javier Zurita, Luke Myers, and Elizabeth Napierkowski,

This pandemic revealed the extent of economic inequities in our society. However, defendants sued in Philadelphia Municipal Court over allegedly unpaid debt have long struggled with an additional hindrance – the issuance of default judgments based on inadequate proof that the money sought is actually owed. Our investigation and report focused on the tens of thousands of consumer-debt actions brought by collection agencies – generally out-of-state debt buyers — each year, against low-income Philadelphians. Most of these defendants do not have legal representation.

Based on our courtroom observations, court dockets, and legal research, we created a checklist intended to help the Philadelphia Municipal Court ensure that in consumer-debt claims brought by collection agencies, default judgments are awarded only when claims have merit. Our proposed checklist itemizes the evidence that the Court should require from plaintiffs before they enter judgment (for example, proof that the plaintiff actually owns the debt; proof of the terms of the contract; and proof of the amount of damages sought). The proposal draws on local and state rules and case law, especially Local Rule 120, which states that Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence apply not only at trials but also before a default judgment can be entered. It is our hope that the Court will utilize the proposed checklist to provide greater due process to defendants in debt cases.

Consumer debt and access to justice

  • By Anthony Antonini, ’21

Covid-19 brought many issues, but some things never change. America has a lot of debt. Household debt in America reached a record high of $14.3 trillion by the end of 2020. And even though card balances fell by $34 billion across the country as households spent less on consumer goods, large numbers of Philadelphians still find themselves in court facing debt collection suits.

Defendants in these actions are given little resources to adequately prepare and are almost always unrepresented. In an effort to assist, the consumer debt team in the Access to Justice Clinic focused on developing helpful materials for these defendants. The team, composed of Emily Alvarez, Elizabeth Wetzler, and Anthony Antonini, worked with Prof. Rieser and attorney Laura Smith at Community Legal Services to figure out what would be most useful.

By the conclusion of the semester, the team had crafted a set of materials comprised of a timeline showing how debt collection work, a checklist for defendants to follow as they prepare for their hearings, and two fact sheets on defenses to collection actions. The materials were reviewed both by CLS and by a person who had been through a debt collection action. Looking forward to the future, the team is excited to pass on the materials they crafted to the next group, so that they can more adequately test their effectiveness. We extend a special thanks to Laura Smith from CLS for all of her help.

This fall in the Access to Justice Clinic

Students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, profiled in this month’s Philadelphia Bar Reporter, work on projects aimed at creating better systems for helping people who are unrepresented in civil matters. This fall, students are:

  • Studying Philadelphia’s small claims court, where mostly-unrepresented people are sued — typically by large debt-buying companies — over credit-card and other debts. The difficult experience of unrepresented defendants in consumer-debt courts, and ideas for ways of leveling the playing field, are the subject of a recent national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, How Debt Collectors are Transforming the Business of State Courts.
  • Exploring the experience of parties to child custody proceedings in Family Court, where hearings are now held virtually rather than in-person. On-line proceedings can pose hardships for unrepresented people, especially when internet access is limited and private space hard to find.
  • Looking into the possibility of creating a legal “incubator” that could help law graduates set up affordable practices serving small businesses in Philly. Currently, the city’s smallest enterprises have difficulty getting help with taxes, contracts, compliance, and other matters, and the pandemic has exacerbated the need.

We’re also continuing to work on promoting the recommendations contained in our two  reports from last summer, Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court and A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice. We welcome suggestions for ways of moving our projects forward — as well as ideas for new efforts!

New report: reducing “evictions by default”

Over half of all “legal” evictions in Philadelphia are based on default judgments entered against tenants who have not appeared at their eviction hearings. In these situations, the Court hears from only one side — the landlord — and typically enters a judgment for back rent and eviction in accordance with the landlord’s request. Eviction follows within a few weeks.

By contrast, when both parties are present, the Court tries to help the parties negotiate a settlement. If that can’t be achieved, the judge hears the tenant’s side of the story, as well as the landlord’s, before making a decision.

A new report, “Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court,” addresses some of the reasons that defaults make up such a big part of the Court’s docket. The report is based on the work of students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic. Through observations, interviews, and a review of several hundred court records, the students identified  problems with the Court’s operations that, if addressed, could bring the default numbers down.

Some tenants apparently do not appear because they do not get notice of their hearings, or do not understand the notice they received, which is written in complex legal terms (nearly all tenants are unrepresented). Other tenants do not know, since the notice does not tell them, that they can request a change of their hearing date if they have an unmanageable conflict such as a medical procedure. And there are other issues, including the startling fact that the courthouse is barely marked, so that some people miss their hearings simply because they can’t find the building.

Much of the students’ research predated the pandemic and the current moratorium on evictions. But the findings and recommendations are all the more timely now, given the backlog of cases that advocates fear will result in “mass evictions” later this year. The report urges that, as the Court plans for reopening, it take every possible step to ensure that its own procedures do not contribute to the occurrence of “evictions by default.”

The students whose work contributed to the report were Sarah Kim Eisenhard, Alice Elmer, Kevin Kulesza, Xavier O’Connor, Ranjani Sarode, and Julia Sheppard.

“Supporting a right to counsel bill is the absolute least I can do”

That was the view expressed by Xavier O’Connor, a 3L student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, speaking before City Council yesterday during its consideration of an historic “right to counsel for low-income tenants” bill. Xavier and colleagues Julia Sheppard and Sarah Kim have spent the semester researching why so many landlord/tenant cases in Philadelphia result in default judgments  — which then lead quickly to eviction.

As Xavier explained: “Our research has shown tenants don’t know they are eligible for existing services, and often haven’t even been properly notified that they have been called to court. Our research has also shown that there are folks who used existing services from the Help Center on the day of their hearings but wish that they had had legal help beforehand.”

Temple Law, as Xavier pointed out, has a front-row view of Philadelphia’s eviction crisis: “As a Temple student, I walk through a North Philly neighborhood affected by eviction every single day. I see the consequences of displacement and how our legal system dramatically impacts these neighborhoods.”

The unanimous passage of the bill by Council yesterday follows several years of work by legal advocates (including Temple Law graduates Rahsheedah Phillips and Barrett Marshall), the Bar Association, and many others — and will lead to further work, since phasing in legal services will require time, training, and funding. In these efforts, Philadelphia will be able to share ideas and models with a growing number of other cities, including New York, San Francisco, Newark and Cleveland, that have adopted similar legislation.

Xavier summed up the reason for getting involved: “The legal landscape we [as law students] are entering soon is unfair but it does not have to be. It should not be. And I am here today to advocate for its change.”

 

Center launches Access to Justice Clinic

What’s an important aspect of our legal system that law students typically don’t learn about? Here’s one: the fact that vast numbers of Americans deal with their civil legal problems without help from lawyers. In landlord-tenant matters, in family court, in consumer and benefits cases, and in many other critical situations, Americans now mostly go it alone.

This reality contrasts sharply with the world of the law school casebook, in which no one, it seems, goes through a legal process without a knowledgeable attorney at their side. For many reasons — including high fees, the shortage of legal aid and pro bono help, the increasing complexity of laws and procedures, and more – that’s just not how our system actually works these days.

Enter the civil “access to justice” movement, which seeks to ensure that America’s justice systems work for everyone – not just those with high incomes. And enter the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, launched this fall. In this clinic, six students are engaging in hands-on projects addressing access-to-justice problems in Philly. One project concerns the difficulty that unrepresented Philadelphians have in getting even a simple divorce. Another involves the high number of default judgments in landlord-tenant court, which result in evictions without the court ever hearing the (typically unrepresented) tenant’s side of the story.

It’s too early to say where the students’ work will lead, but the Clinic is off to a good start. The new clinic is just our most recent attempt, by the way, to engage students in improving access to justice in Pennsylvania (see our work on fair treatment for non-native speakers of English in court proceedings for another example). We hope you’ll check back as the year progresses to learn more about our Access to Justice Clinic and other projects.