Leveling the Field in Collections Court

Philadelphia Municipal Court hears thousands of debt collection cases each year, the majority brought by large debt-buying companies against people without legal representation. A host of problems have been documented with these cases, including service-of-process issues (which can result in the entry of judgment even before the defendant knows that the case has been filed); a lack of clear information for pro se defendants concerning their rights; court-encouraged “negotiations” between defendants and experienced attorneys, typically resulting in the entry of “agreed” judgments for nearly the full amount claimed; and, when defendants do not appear, the entry of default judgments without documentation that the debt-buyer actually owns the debt or that the amount sought is justified.

Collections court and its troubling impact on Philadelphians – especially people of low income and people of color – has been discussed at length in reports by Reinvestment Fund and PewTrusts. And the problems are not limited to Philadelphia, as national studies by PewTrusts and Human Rights Watch make clear.

Over several semesters, students in the Access to Justice Clinic have developed proposed informational materials for pro se defendants; drafted recommendations for ways of making the initial “hearing” in collections cases fairer for defendants; and proposed new procedures to ensure that, before entering default judgments, the Court comply with evidentiary rules requiring a showing that the plaintiff is entitled to the damages claimed.

We are in discussion with the Court concerning these proposals. We recognize, too, that they are only partial answers to the problem of leveling the playing field in collections court. Future efforts may involve expanding the availability of legal representation, as well as adding trained “navigators” who can help defendants understand court procedures and better participate in their own defense.