Developing Self-Help Materials

When lawyers try to develop materials explaining the law and legal procedures to lay people, the results are not always successful. That’s because many lawyers lack expertise in communication – or, at least, in communication with people outside the legal profession. Communication basics such as understanding one’s audience, taking account of the affective as well as the rational aspects of the communication process, using language that’s an appropriate level, considering a range of possible media, incorporating design elements – are not always a major part of legal education. And the essential practice of hearing directly from the people with whom one seeks to communicate, in order to discover their needs and what approaches would be most helpful to them, is often overlooked entirely.

Developing self-help materials is a frequent part of the Clinic’s work, and we try to learn and incorporate communications “best practices” in these efforts. Recent examples of self-help materials developed by Clinic students include fact sheets on defendants’ rights in consumer-debt court; a flier on how to prepare for a virtual hearing in Family Court; and a video for recipients of SSI (Supplemental Security Income) on how to complete the “Continuing Disability Review” forms required by the Social Security Administration.

Bringing Legal Help to Community Settings

Research suggests that social workers, medical workers, librarians, and other community-based partners can be effective providers of legal information. In fact, people who need help are likelier to look, at least initially, to these trusted partners than to courts or law firms.

Building the capacity of community providers to furnish accurate information and referrals makes sense both in urban areas (Oakland’s Legal Link, “providing legal first aid on the front lines,” is an example, as is New York City’s Legal Hand) and in rural settings (see Alaska’s Justice Ecosystem). It’s an idea, we believe, that would be good for Philadelphia (and Pennsylvania).

Our first effort to promote the idea was A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice, a proposal for low-cost ways in which Philadelphia’s Free Library could provide better legal information. With 52 branches, the library is a highly-used resource accessible from every corner of the city — but librarians currently have little legal information to share. One of our suggestions was that, instead of referring patrons to the law books at the main library, the library create a curated, self-help web site that librarians could help patrons use. The idea has not yet come to fruition, but we plan to continue to promote it, as well as to develop additional proposals for community-based, “front-line” sources of legal information.

Making Court Information Understandable

The “consumers” in our civil justice system are members of the public. And yet the information that courts provide to their consumers has been difficult if not impossible for them to understand. Forms and instructions, typically written by lawyers, are filled with jargon known only to other lawyers. Notices and orders tend to follow the same pattern. And court web sites, which may be the first stop for an unrepresented litigant seeking information (or someone trying to help that litigant), are often organized in ways that do not at all fit the thought processes of people without legal training. (Would a divorced parent trying to learn how to ask for more time with her children think to look first for “Common Pleas,” then “Family Division,” then “Domestic Relations”?)

But this consumer-unfriendly pattern is starting to change. Courts around the country are beginning to work with design professionals, to solicit input from actual users, to replace jargon with plain language, and to address the needs for translation and for accommodations for disabilities. With these efforts in mind, we have collaborated with the First Judicial District in an exploration of how its own web site might be improved.

We began with user testing, in which we played the roles of members of the public seeking specific kinds of information from the site and took note of the “pain points” and dead ends that we sometimes encountered. We examined other court sites for ideas that we might want to borrow. We collaborated for an entire semester with a design professor and his students at Temple’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, who helped us understand how the site could be made more useful through visual changes. We have shared our recommendations with the First Judicial District, and are hopeful that more work on this project is in our future.

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.

Attacking One Facet of Poverty Punishments

Pennsylvania is authorized to take away a person’s driver’s license for any number of reasons. Some of them are as a direct result of behavior that might compromise highway safety, such as reckless driving or driving under the influence. Other reasons, however, amount to a mere punishment of poverty – driver’s licenses are suspended or revoked because people are unable to pay monetary obligations to the court, such as judgments, fines, and fees.

In 2018, Pennsylvania revoked a longstanding law that allowed for driver’s licenses to be suspended as a result of drug offenses, possessing a fake ID, or purchasing tobacco or alcohol as a minor. This was a step in the right direction, but the law did not go nearly far enough. Today, an estimated 375,000 people still have a suspended license for failure to pay or respond to a court proceeding.

Driving with a suspended license can result in both additional fees (that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars) and can land a person in jail for months. And those who try to follow the law while suspended face a strain on one of their most important resources: time. Without a valid driver’s license, commuting to work can transform from a 20-minute drive to an hours-long ride on multiple buses or, in even worse cases, the loss of employment based on the inability to access its location.

Students on this Project are urging Pennsylvania to join states like California in repealing laws that allow for driver’s licenses to be suspended for any non-safety reason. This can be a start toward erasing all statutes that simply criminalize poverty.

Parole Preparation Project

Parole is among the most antiquated and imbalanced features of our criminal legal sentencing system. Incarcerated people — who have already served the minimum length of their sentences — are subjected to a largely arbitrary, highly discretionary, and labyrinthine process to request release. Parole rules procedurally disadvantage applicants by, for example, considering evidence never proven in court or taking information into account that is withheld from the applicant. Applicants for parole are often denied release not because they are undeserving, but because they do not know how to navigate the process.

The Parole Preparation Project NY (“PPP”) creates a structure and trains community volunteers to collaborate with incarcerated people on their applications to and appearances before parole boards. Volunteers help currently incarcerated people who are up for parole to “develop solid release plans, create compelling advocacy packets to submit to the Parole Board, and practice interviewing skills necessary for parole appearances.” Since its founding in 2013, the rate of release for incarcerated people working with the PPP is nearly double the statewide average in NY.

We are working to bring the Parole Preparation Project to Pennsylvania. While it is beyond our capacity to redesign the parole process, we can prepare incarcerated folks in ways that will facilitate better outcomes.

Ceasefire Mobile Legal Clinic

Students worked with Philly Ceasefire to design and implement a mobile legal clinic for young adults involved in or affected by gun violence in Northern Philadelphia. Some of these young adults will be reentering the community after stints of incarceration; others will be law enforcement involved; and still others will be in groups at a high risk for interaction with the criminal legal system. Ceasefire’s foundational premise is that violence can be stopped by using methods that are more commonly associated with other facets of public health, such as detecting and interrupting problems before they become emergent; identifying and treating the highest risk individuals; and changing social norms. These are the same methods used by the most effective legal clinics – meeting people where they’re at; preventing solvable problems from becoming unmanageable catastrophes; and helping clients to feel empowered to help themselves.

Students involved in this project are working with Philadelphia Ceasefire to develop and implement a mobile legal clinic for young adults who are law enforcement affected. Students have surveyed ethe target client base to identify pertinent legal questions; researched relevant legal issues; created informational materials; and designed a system to deliver services to clients. Students plan to launch the legal clinic in 2022.

Creating Legal Empowerment Tools for Returning Citizens

Pop-up legal clinics have become a common model for providing services to the community around discrete legal issues such as expungements and pardons. While these models are helpful, they create a dynamic whereby lawyers stand as the gatekeepers between the community and the courts.  However, community lawyering asks that we look not at how we can be mere service providers, but instead at how we can empower the community to achieve its own goals through its own efforts. In other words, how we can teach a man to fish instead of merely providing him with today’s meal.

In Pennsylvania, there are a finite number of lawyers working on re-entry and collateral consequence issues.  In contrast, there is a never-ending stream of citizens who are returning to the community who have legal issues that need to be met in order for them to move forward in their lives. Many of these issues do not necessarily require the intervention of an attorney, at least not at the preparation stage. Instead, already existing community organizations – including service providers and religious institutions – could serve as the bridge between these returning citizen and the legal system.

Students involved in this project identified legal areas that are well-positioned for community-based preparation assistance (e.g., expungement, child visitation modifications, ID applications, license reinstatement). They then worked to create a website that would assist returning citizens and community organizations in addressing these legal issues.

Judicial & Public Defender Training

The American Bar Association has taken the position that “collateral sanctions should be explained before a person pleads guilty to an offense or at sentencing, and that there should be a formal process to appeal for relief from collateral sanctions.” We at the Systemic Justice Project agree.

Moreover, we believe that defense counsel should have enough information about collateral penalties so that they can fully advise clients about all of the potential harms resulting from a criminal conviction. And criminal defendants should be empowered to negotiate plea deals with the knowledge of how collateral consequences will affect their lives after the formal sentence has been served. As the system currently stands, defendants may plead to certain charges (especially lower-level violations and misdemeanors) that carry collateral consequences of which they are unaware and that, had they been aware, they might not have agreed to.

Students involved in this project created a comprehensive “Collateral Consequences 101” handbook which outlines the collateral consequences of all major criminal charges in Pennsylvania. They also created a companion desk guide for public defenders in a format that is both accessible and easy to reference. Students also developed two CLE training courses – one for public defenders and one for judges – to help them better understand collateral consequences

Creating a Model for a More Independent Public Defenders Office

The Systemic Justice Project published “Strengthening the Office of the Public Defender – Analysis and Recommendations for Montgomery County.” The report was produced at the request of the Montgomery County (PA) Board of Commissioners by Systemic Justice Clinic students Colton Brown, Celia Givens, Terence Jones, and Jacqueline Winton under the supervision of Professor Shanda Sibley, with review and feedback from Professors Jules Epstein, Lauren Ouziel, and Robert Schwartz.  The County selected Temple for the task of identifying critical needs and proposing best practices within Pennsylvania’s existing legal framework for indigent defense.  This Final Report follows public feedback after release of an initial draft.

“The students produced a comprehensive and insightful report that gives the Board of Commissioners and the Office of the Public Defender a broad base of information about best practices of public defender systems nationwide, and a comparative analysis of structures that have been implemented throughout America to improve the provision of indigent defense,” Sibley said.  “We hope that the recommendations included in the Report, if implemented, will both improve the practices of the Board of Commissioners and increase the independence of the public defender’s office. It was not an easy task, but the students absolutely rose to the challenge and exceeded all expectations.” Sibley said that she could not be prouder of the work done by the clinic and supporting faculty members.

Included in the report are eleven recommendations designed to address three significant points of concern: independence of the Defender’s Office, funding considerations, and litigation and risk mitigation. The report also identifies national public defense standards published by the American Bar Association and the National Association for Public Defenders as well as juvenile justice and defense standards from the Institute of Judicial Administration, American Bar Association, National Association of Counsel for Children, and National Juvenile Defender Center. It concludes by highlighting how changes to Pennsylvania’s legal framework for indigent defense would offer even greater opportunities to improve practices not only in Montgomery County, but across the Commonwealth.