Significantly different litigant introductions and explanatory instructions were observed in small claims sessions across courthouses, and across clerks in the same courthouse.
“Debt collection cases often disproportionately involve vulnerable members of marginalized communities, including the poor, disabled, people of color, and persons with limited English proficiency.”
The shift to virtual court hearings had a serious impact on self-represented litigants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased accessibility problems stemming from a systemic lack of standardization in court practices and new technology-related barriers prevent many litigants from fully participating in and comprehending the legal process, perpetuating power imbalances and inequities in the civil justice system.
In debt collection cases, these inequities can cause irreparable harm in people’s lives that deepen financial insecurity, further disenfranchising low-income communities and communities of color who were already hit hardest during the COVID-19 pandemic. Legal assistance, such as Lawyer for the Day programs, can help self-represented litigants avoid the most severe consequences like eviction or incarceration. But the barriers observed also impeded litigants’ ability to access these programs.
By centering the needs of our most vulnerable litigants, making targeted improvements, and standardizing best practices, the Trial Court can promote just and fair outcomes for everyone who has a virtual hearing – in debt collection cases and across all civil justice issues.
Our thanks to fellow project directors, Ariel R. Clemmer, Esq. and Ben Golden, Esq., and Massachusetts Appleseed interns Zeia Fawaz and Alexandra Goodley-Espinosa. Thank you as well to Alaina Donohue and Professor Kathryne M. Young, who gave their time and expertise to help create this report. A special thanks to the many law students from Western New England University who spent their school breaks collecting data to support this project: Justin Aljoe, Jessica Callahan, Hailey Conger, Alexis Johnson, Caitrin Kiley, Bonnie Mannix, Brendan McCarthy, Tenneille McFarlane, Michael Pabon, Anthony Paturso, Carley Podlasek, Areaona Roberson, Bo Sjoberg, Steven Tilley, Jessica Ugbo, and Amanda Waife.
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