Clinic students work with Kenyan NGO on threats from digital ID system

– by Valerie Wilson, L ’25

In the Access to Justice Clinic, our team of Kiko Galpin, Jackie Jaques, Lara Ormiston and Valerie Wilson worked this spring with Haki na Sheria, a Kenyan NGO “dedicated to ending the discrimination and promoting the rights of marginalized communities in Northern Kenya.”  Our task was to produce a report about the impact of Kenya’s “Maisha Namba” digital ID program on Kenyan Somalis and other groups that struggle with access to identity documents because of discrimination and marginalization in Kenyan society. (The clinic was co-taught this semester by Laura Bingham of the Institute for Law, Innovation and Technology (iLIT) and Len Rieser of the Sheller Center.)

Haki na Sheria has done extensive community education and legal empowerment work with the Kenyan Somali community in Garissa County, a rural area in Kenya’s northeast. Haki na Sheria advocates to promote the right to a nationality and to prevent statelessness, and provides accompaniment for members of the Kenyan Somali community who are applying for national identity cards, which provide proof of nationality and are issued to Kenyans from age 18.

 In Kenya, these national identity cards are required to work, pay school fees, and attend university. But obtaining an identity card is difficult for the people Haki na Sheria works with because of a complex practice called “vetting,” in which members of specific communities must undergo extensive security checks and heightened scrutiny to confirm their citizenship (which should be established from birth) and acquire the all-important national ID card.

After years of efforts by Haki na Sheria and other civil society groups to eliminate vetting, the practice still exists, and the Kenyan government’s decision to adopt a digital ID system has created even more uncertainty for this community and poses serious risks to their future financial, social and political inclusion. In 2020 and 2021, Haki na Sheria, along with other civil society organizations, successfully challenged a previous effort to implement digital ID (“Huduma Namba”) in the Kenyan courts, on the grounds that the project lacked an adequate legal framework to address privacy and discrimination risks. However, when the current government came into power in 2023, it announced another digital ID program under a different name — Maisha Namba — without engaging in the necessary legal and policy reforms to protect the rights of the Kenyan Somalis, other vulnerable communities, and the public in general.

When we started this project, a legal challenge to the Maisha Namba system had temporarily stalled the project through an injunction, and we therefore approached problems with the system from a theoretical standpoint. But in February 2024, the Kenyan High Court lifted the injunction on Maisha Namba’s implementation and the system began to move forward with the issuance of new cards. Our focus shifted to include current logistical and administrative problems with the actual implementation of the system on the ground. We decided to structure our report around the UNDP Digital ID Model Governance Framework, which assesses digital ID systems based on multiple dimensions of human rights.

We conducted a literature review and interviewed community members, paralegals, and government officials who have dealt with the current ID systems and application processes in Garissa County. In the end, we were able to produce a comprehensive account of the human rights risks of digital ID tailored to the specific experiences and circumstances of the Kenyan Somali community and similarly situated groups that are forced to undergo discriminatory vetting to access identity documents proving they are Kenyan.

Our report will be the first that we know of to apply the UNDP Model Governance Framework in practice, and to provide an in-depth discussion of the impact that the Maisha Namba system will have on the Kenyan Somali community. We are eager to see how this project develops in the Advanced Access to Justice Clinic in the Fall 2024 semester. We also hope that our report spurs more researchers to study the effects of digital identity systems and other forms of digital public infrastructure on marginalized groups.

Some progress in debt-collection court

Judgments routinely favoring debt-buying companies, typically against low-income folks who may not have received proper service, understood their rights, or managed to present their defenses: that has been, at least in considerable part, the story of debt-collection court in Philadelphia. Sheller Center students have been working on the problem for several years, in partnership with Community Legal Services, the National Center for State Courts, other advocates, and the courts themselves. We’ve produced a series of reports (links below), and have done some direct representation in order to see, up close, how the process works.

Last month, we had a trial in Common Pleas Court in a credit-card-debt case that we had lost twice — first in Municipal Court, then in arbitration proceedings. Students Cathy Ginder and Nicole Kerr had worked on this case, in which — as often occurs — the debt-buyer relied on hearsay documents and offered no proof of most of the charges that our client had supposedly incurred. Those deficiencies were ignored at the earlier hearings, but on our third try, the Court saw a problem — and entered a judgment that largely favored our client.

Progress has come slowly, but we think we may finally be getting somewhere – most recently as an invited member of a new committee, convened by Municipal Court and including representatives of plaintiffs as well as defendants, charged with recommending changes. We’re looking forward to advocating for a fairer system.

Our reports:

Six Practical Ways Courts Can Reduce Default Judgments in Debt Collection Cases

Toward a More Level Playing Field: A Navigator Program for Philadelphia’s Debt-Collection Court

Preventing Unfair Default Judgments in Debt Collection Cases: Proposals for a Compliance Checklist

Enhancing Due Process in Consumer Debt Proceedings

Helping Temple students understand their rights as tenants

In this week’s Temple News, journalism student Alayna Hutchinson reports on a plan by students in our Social Justice Lawyering Clinic to provide better information to Temple students — especially undergraduates — about their rights as tenants in off-campus housing. Casey Dwyer and Anna Manu Fineanganofo, 2Ls, developed the plan in consultation with the Office of the Dean of Students, the Cherry Pantry, and the Law School’s student-organized Housing Justice Initiative. Law students participating in the program would offer legal information to students with questions about their leases or rental conditions; if legal advice or representation were needed, a student could be referred to one of Philly’s legal services organizations.

We’re grateful to Temple News reporter Alayna Hutchinson for digging into the important issue — well documented by Temple’s own Hope Center — of how to get more legal help to students with problems involving basic needs.

Taking our work on the road

four people sitting and standing at a conference table

“An unrepresented person walks into a courthouse” might sound like the beginning of a joke, but in real life it’s a recipe for intimidation, confusion and stress. That’s where court-based help centers can make a difference, according to a report produced by students in our Access to Justice Clinic (“Justice for All: The Current Success of Self-Help Centers in Pennsylvania Courts and Recommendations for Growth)”. So we were excited to be invited, this month, to present our findings to the Pennsylvania Association of Court Management, PA’s organization of court professionals, at their Pittsburgh meeting.

As the report explains, self-help centers offer a comfortable environment where litigants can get assistance in understanding court procedures, filling out forms, and navigating other mystifying aspects of the judicial process. The centers benefit not only the public, but also judges and court staff, whose work becomes easier when people are able to follow the rules for being heard. And PA has some successful centers — though there are also still many counties that do not have them. (By contrast, some states have help centers in most or all of their courthouses.)

Cathy Ginder, L ’25, one of the authors of our report (at the right in the photo), planned the Pittsburgh session, invited the presenters, and moderated the discussion. Megan Dietz and Yorleny Remigio, stars of the York County Court Self-Help and Law Resource Center, explained how their center was created and why litigants and judges so strongly support it. Aubrie Souza, Court Management Consultant for the National Center for State Courts, generously traveled from Boston to add a national perspective and to offer her organization’s assistance to PA courts. (NCSC recently released its own report on self-help centers around the country.)

We hope our presentation will lead more PA counties to consider creating help centers. And we’re pleased that our clinic now has a connection to PACM, which is on the front lines of making justice more accessible to Pennsylvanians.

Helping families get the legal information they need

When people want legal information but do not have access to a lawyer, they tend to head for the internet. Sometimes, they find what they’re looking for. But often, they end up overwhelmed: a search for “special education Pennsylvania,” for example, turns up 345 million sites, each of which, when visited, leads to more clicks and links.

The fact that there is so much information online, much of it disorganized and only some of it likely to be relevant to any particular visitor’s concerns, creates a huge challenge for legal aid organizations. Their web and social media sites must be readily findable by the people they seek to serve, and and must stand out from commercial and other sites that may be designed for different purposes. Navigation must be simple and straightforward. Content must be accurate, but also conveyed in terms understandable to people without legal training — often a difficult balance to achieve. Further, people seeking legal information are often in stressful situations, which complicates communication; and many speak languages other than English.

This semester, a team from the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic took an in-depth look at the web site of the Education Law Center-PA and produced a report on ways in which its already well-developed site could better serve families. Recommendations included reorganizing the site to enable parents to jump more quickly to the information they need; simplifying menus and lists; adding natural-language search and translation functions; developing more short, “plain language” resource materials; and more.

Here’s how the team, which consisted of Ingrid Xiomara Lopez Martinez, Austin Kurtanich, and Lydia Anderson, all 2Ls, summarized their work:

The Education Law Center (ELC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving access to quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania, particularly those who are underserved. ELC provides a wide range of resources and services to various stakeholders, including families, school officials, policymakers, and community organizations. The purpose of our project was to analyze the ELC website, including its strengths and weaknesses, as well as to provide suggestions for improvement.

Our report focused on making recommendations to ELC’s overall website organization, design, and structure, including specific priority areas, such as Special Education, Bullying and Harassment, and Exclusionary Discipline. Through meetings with an ELC attorney, we learned that these priority areas were ELC’s most sought-after materials. While most parents use ELC’s Hotline number to inquire about issues, it is important that ELC’s website provides parents and other users with accessible information needed to assist in advocating for students and promoting equal opportunities to learn.

This project is a second installment in the Clinic’s work on making legal web sites more accessible to the public. Last year, a team developed a set of recommendations to enhance the web site of Philadelphia’s Common Pleas and Municipal Courts. While the context was different, the basic thrust of both efforts was the same: online legal materials are most useful to the public when they are easy to find, directly responsive to users’ actual needs, and presented in simple, easily understandable formats and language.

Self-help centers in PA courts benefit litigants, judges, and court staff

In an effort to help unrepresented people navigate complex procedures, six PA judicial systems — like many others around the country — have introduced court-based “self-help centers.” In “Justice for All: The Current Success of Self-Help Centers in Pennsylvania Courts and Recommendations for Growth,” a Sheller Center team offers their findings from a semester-long study of how these centers work and the results they’ve achieved.

The report discusses the design and funding of self-help centers; provides reactions to the centers from judges, court staff and litigants; and offers contacts and suggestions for courts and advocates interested in creating or expanding help centers in their locations. The report was authored by Catherine Baldwin, Tess Frydman, and Cathy Ginder, 2L students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic.

Some thoughts from Catherine Baldwin:

Court self-help centers, on their face, seem like an easy win. We allow individuals to represent themselves pro se and those self-represented litigants make up a huge portion of the parties in civil cases. The legal process can be complex and confusing. Litigants often struggle with the procedural aspects of their cases: what it means to serve their opponent, which forms to use, and what to expect in the courtroom. A court self-help center can provide these resources and set self-represented litigants on the track to fully participate in their case. A prepared litigant improves judicial efficiency because cases are not gummed up by procedural problems.

Why then are there so few court self-help centers in Pennsylvania? One of the major obstacles is a concern about courts providing legal advice to litigants. Personnel who are not attorneys may not offer legal advice, because that would be the unauthorized practice of law. And personnel who are attorneys may not offer legal advice because doing so would make the court seem partial to the one receiving the advice. Courts are concerned that help centers might not be able to offer neutral legal information without crossing the line into legal advice.

However daunting this obstacle may seem to courts, it is surmountable. There can be a clear distinction between legal information and legal advice. Take Colorado as an example: it has a self-help center system that spans the entire state. At its inception, the Supreme Court met the concern about legal advice head on. In a directive released in 2013, the Chief Justice set forth a standard. Colorado self-help personnel may provide information about court procedures, offer educational materials, assist in the selection of forms, answer general questions about the court process, as well as many other services. Among other things, personnel may not represent litigants, give an opinion on the outcome of a case, provide legal analysis, or make a recommendation whether the case should be brought to court. Self-help personnel may not say anything they would not repeat in the presence of the opposing party in the case.

Our report on court help centers in Pennsylvania and other states outlines various structures for court help centers, addresses common issues, and provides contact information for a network of professionals who are willing to lend their expertise to courts interested in creating help centers.

For most litigants, courthouses are at best, overwhelming and intimidating. Self-represented litigants are so often left to fend for themselves, adrift in the legalese and formality that comes with every civil case. Court help centers, whatever their structure, prepare litigants to participate fully in their case and make the court less frightening.

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.

New report identifies practical steps courts can take to reduce default judgments in debt cases

Text message reminders, comprehensible notices, expanded hearing options, a “compliance checklist”: these are among the recommendations in the Center’s latest report on how to reduce the staggering number of default judgments in debt-collection cases.

About half of all cases brought by third-party debt collectors in Philadelphia Municipal Court result in default judgments, in which the Court awards the full amount requested by the creditor without hearing the alleged debtor’s side of the story. These judgments further impoverish Philadelphians who may already be at the lower end of the income ladder.

“Six Practical Ways Courts Can Reduce Default Judgments in Debt Collection Cases,” authored by students Adam Karbeling and Jessie Hemmons, discusses why defendants may not appear for their hearings, and finds that — contrary to conventional wisdom — those reasons often have nothing to do with carelessness or a lack of interest in being heard. Drawing on experience from jurisdictions around the country, Adam and Jessie discuss six relatively easy steps that courts can take to make the entry of default judgments less likely.

In a separate post, Adam and Jessie discuss their experience putting together the report.

Could “qualified legal advocates” help Pennsylvanians with their legal issues?

Vast numbers of Americans, including a sizeable share of the population of Pennsylvania, have no access to legal help in important matters involving basic needs, such as housing, child support and custody, and public benefits. And while efforts are (always) being made to expand rights to counsel and pro bono services, it is widely agreed that, at least in the foreseeable future, there will not be enough lawyers to meet everyone’s needs at prices they can afford.

It’s also unclear, however, that everyone who confronts a legal issue requires the services of a lawyer who has been trained in all of the areas addressed in law school and on the bar examination. That’s why one effective response to the “justice gap,” according to Briana Ziff, a student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, may be to authorize trained individuals other than lawyers to provide legal assistance in specific situations, such as certain types of family-law and landlord-tenant proceedings.

In an article published in this month’s Philadelphia Lawyer, Ms. Ziff presents her research on four states — Utah, Arizona, Minnesota and Delaware — that have taken steps to do just that. “Qualified legal advocates” is Delaware’s term; while the states use different terminology and take slightly different approaches, the underlying idea — that effective legal help of certain kinds can be provided by people with varying levels of skill and training, and that not all of them have to be lawyers — is the same.

So far, according to the article, the results are encouraging: access to help has grown and the quality of services appears to be good. Given the scale of Pennsylvania’s “justice gap,” Ms. Ziff argues, it’s time to consider whether qualified legal advocates could provide a valuable service to Pennsylvanians as well.

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.