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Access to Justice

Improving the Lives of Individuals in Financial Distress
A Randomized Control Trial to Determine What Works, and an Investigation of an Industry

The stubbornly persistent recession in the United States has put a premium on answering the following question: What works and what does not work in terms of improving the financial health of the unemployed, the under-employed, the middle and lower-middle classes, the working poor, and others who struggle to meet their financial obligations? Social welfare and insurance programs may be of limited value to such populations unless these individuals become better able to manage their financial affairs, to plan for unexpected expenses, and to extricate themselves from financial distress. We propose a gold-standard test of two interventions that Congress and others have advocated for persons in need: (i) financial education and counseling, and (ii) legal assistance from an attorney. By “gold-standard” test, we mean a randomized control trial testing the effects of these interventions (both separately and in combination) against a control group. We will measure the effects of these “treatments” by examining credit reports (including credit scores), by reviewing court records for the results of collection lawsuits, and (funds permitting) by surveying study subjects. In addition to producing information about what works and what does not, our study will provide an investigation into the debt collection industry, where there are allegations of practices that could require regulatory or other official attention. The results of the study will be useful to Congress (as it contemplates changes to the Bankruptcy code), to agencies contemplating regulation of the financial industry (including in the recently created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), to the financial counseling industry, to credit card and other credit industry participants with an interest in rehabilitating future customers, to legal aid providers, and to anyone interested in the financial well-being of persons in financial distress. Read the full project description >

Access to Justice Initiative

The recent economic recession has brought new urgency to longstanding problems in the delivery of legal services. For decades, bar studies have consistently estimated that over four-fifths of the individual legal needs of the poor and a majority of the needs of middle-income individuals Americans remain unmet. Our failures in providing access to justice have been compounded in the recent downturn. High rates of unemployment, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and reductions in social services have created more demands for legal representation at the same time that many of its providers are facing cutbacks in their own budgets. As a consequence, legal aid and public interest programs are often being asked to do more with less.

In this context, the need for greater research and education about the justice gap assumes increasing importance. To allocate scarce funds wisely, we need better information about unmet legal problems, the gaps in service provision, and the cost-effectiveness of various strategies to address them.

The recent creation of an Access to Justice Initiative within the United States Department of Justice under the Obama administration responds to these concerns. The initiative’s interest in building bridges to legal academics prompted a meeting at Stanford University in 2011 co-sponsored by the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession, the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, and the American Bar Foundation. One result of that meeting was the creation of a Consortium on Access to Justice. The mission of the consortium is to promote research and teaching on access to justice, and one of its first initiatives has been the preparation of a report. Although the consortium’s primary focus is on civil matters, many challenges that it identifies are equally apparent in indigent criminal defense. We aim to enlist more legal scholars and educators in focusing on the fairness and legitimacy of the American justice system, and to create constituencies that are more informed and motivated to address its challenges.

Read the report, Access to Justice: An Agenda for Legal Education and Research

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