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.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate online Family Court

– Puja Upadhyay

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Family Court in Philadelphia transitioned to online in mid-2020 and has largely remained online since then. The group arguably most affected by the transition to online was unrepresented people, who constitute the majority of Family Court litigants.

Even before the pandemic, the process for bringing a case in Family Court was complex, but the complexity was intensified with the transition to online. While there were some benefits to the new format, there were also new barriers to successful participation, including having an adequate internet connection, a quiet space without distractions, the required technology, and so on.

However, some Family Court judges have indicated their interest in holding hearings online for some matters even after there is no longer a health risk. Given the new virtual environment, our work as part of the Access to Justice Clinic this semester was to better understand, and find ways to improve, the online Family Court experience for unrepresented litigants.

Most of our work this semester focused on gathering information about the shift to online – specifically, the biggest challenges unrepresented litigants (and practitioners) were facing, and the solutions that they hoped to see in response. Esteban Rodriguez, Ross Wiech and I felt it was important to gather a range of perspectives, and to do so with enough depth that we would be able to gain meaningful insights for our work. To that end, we relied primarily on one-on-one interviews with family law attorneys, Temple Law students participating in family law clinic, and of course, unrepresented litigants themselves. To get the fullest picture of navigating Family Court online, we also observed several Family Court hearings to see first-hand how unrepresented litigants were faring.

We also took stock of the guidance that is already available online for unrepresented litigants. For instance, Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) has several webpages about navigating online Family Court and explaining the relevant law. The Philadelphia Bar Association also developed several in-depth brochures on navigating each type of matter in Family Court during COVID-19. There were also many general resources about how to prepare for a court hearing online.

However, based on our interviews and court observations, we identified a gap in the resources that were available to pro se litigants. While there is a lot of useful information available, it is spread across multiple different websites and formats. Additionally, there is relatively little guidance about participating in an online Family Court hearing, specifically in Philadelphia. Our conversations revealed that there were several tips and tricks for navigating Family Court in Philadelphia that were well known to people familiar with the system, but that were not clearly articulated in public resources.

Our goal became to create resources that would give pro se litigants a sense of what to expect at online Family Court hearings in Philadelphia. Unrepresented litigants are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Without a grasp on what to expect at an online Family Court hearing on a very basic level, they are already one step behind.  Focusing on practical guidance rather than legal arguments, we consolidated the advice from our conversations, observations, and the various resources spread across multiple channels, into two “portable” PDF flyers that could easily be attached to an email or even used as a physical handout. Additionally, to dispel any confusion over what it looks like to participate in an online hearing, we created two short explainer videos that demonstrate what it looks like to join a Family Court hearing on the Court’s chosen video conferencing platform, RingCentral.

We hope that these resources will help to level the playing field for unrepresented litigants. While the transition to online has improved access to justice in some ways, it has also severely limited it in others. With luck, our contribution will help unrepresented litigants feel at least somewhat more confident when they click into their Family Court hearing link.

 

Observations from a semester’s work on the SSI Project in the Access to Justice Clinic

-Stephanie Curl, Lauren Williams and Josh Lachewitz

This semester, we set out to create user-friendly materials to assist recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – a federal safety-net program that provides essential monthly benefits to people who are 65 and older, blind, or disabled and who are very low income. SSI is not the same as Social Security, for which many SSI beneficiaries don’t qualify. To be eligible for SSI, a person must have access to very little money (carefully calculated using many factors that look at assets and income) and have a documented and ongoing disability that makes it difficult or impossible to work.

Our project focused on two aspects of SSI. First, we addressed the situation in which the Social Security Administration (SSA) tells recipients that their benefits will be cut because they have too much money. Second, we addressed overpayments, which happen when SSA informs recipients that SSA paid them too much and now the recipient must pay SSA back. Focusing on these two areas — both of them sources of great stress and confusion to SSI recipients — allowed us to narrow the scope of a very complex topic.

Sara Lynch, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS), had brought the idea for this project to the Access to Justice Clinic after seeing clients who were confused and scared about what to do if their benefits were cut or they were told they owed SSA money. We began our project with research—wading through as much material as we could find on SSI—and quickly found out that SSI is incredibly complex. We then took questions and concerns to several local attorneys and community advocates who specialize in assisting clients through the SSI process. From those meetings, we were able to narrow down our project to the two areas described above; however, we also realized that there are many more aspects of SSI that students could focus on for future projects.

Steph spoke to a CLS client who had been denied SSI several times. The client expressed frustration at the long wait times that are characteristic of the appeals process. Ultimately, her first appeal resulted in a denial after a year of waiting for a response. The client said that she felt like her application was being sent off into a black hole and no one wanted to help her until she came to CLS.

After talking with the CLS client, our goal became to create materials that were not only user-friendly but that empowered people as they advocated for themselves. Our first pass resembled the information that was already available on the Social Security website—a bit academic, not conversational and a little too dense. We incorporated the feedback we received, and learned that our materials would be best presented as part of a family of materials CLS provides for clients, all with the same look and feel. CLS provided a template to us and we were able to drop our copy directly into it. We had been playing around all semester with graphics in Microsoft Word, but it turned out we didn’t have to be quite so creative.

We ended up creating a flyer informing SSI recipients about how to stay on SSI, which addresses what to do if recipients find that their benefits have been cut or reduced, and importantly, how to keep it from happening again. We also created a flyer on what recipients can do when SSA tells them they have been overpaid.

Throughout the project, we collaborated with Dacil Keo, a paralegal at CLS who works with clients, often when they have had their benefits cut off or reduced. She told us that many members of the Asian-American community in Philadelphia are affected, and our materials might be even more useful if translated into some of their native languages. Dacil also invited us to sit in on a meeting of the Asian Pacific American Social Services Providers Group, composed of individuals representing organizations that assist Asian Americans in Philadelphia. Through that discussion, we learned that the most useful languages for translation of our materials were likely Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese. But we are also left with the feeling that there is so much more to do! Immigration status affects SSI—what about a resource for that? Many community organizations work with people eligible for SSI—what about creating a resource for advocates to use when their work coincides with an application or an appeal related to SSI? What about the homeless population, for whom our suggestions about keeping receipts and documentation in a shoebox or a folder were particularly poorly suited? What could we do for them?

Though we learned a lot this semester and hopefully created some useful resources for CLS, we are hopeful and enthusiastic that other students may continue this work in coming semesters.

 

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!