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Making Good Legal Design the Law

Margaret Hagan, Jan 13, 2022

We have been talking and working on the importance of the justice system’s user experience — as have many others in other public interest sectors.

We have been talking and working on the importance of the justice system’s user experience — as have many others in other public interest sectors.

These civic services should be usable, useful, and engaging. It should be easy for all different types of people to find their options for courts, benefits, taxes, government documents, and other key government tasks. The processes should be as simple as possible, with the fewest time and money burdens, and with an emphasis on a supportive, dignified experience.

Now we are seeing these goals become legal mandates.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/12/13/executive-order-on-transforming-federal-customer-experience-and-service-delivery-to-rebuild-trust-in-government/

The White House issued an Executive Order in December 2021 setting out explicit rules about good design of federal government services. It sets out human-centered design as an official obligation for federal agencies.

Here’s a quote of their policy intent with this order:

“ The Federal Government must design and deliver services in a manner that people of all abilities can navigate. We must use technology to modernize Government and implement services that are simple to use, accessible, equitable, protective, transparent, and responsive for all people of the United States.”

It also uses the UX-oriented concept of administrative burdens to set out metrics. The order requires that these agencies be measuring the quality of the design and user experience.

“It is the policy of the United States that, in a Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, improving service delivery and customer experience should be fundamental priorities. The Government’s performance must be measured empirically and by on-the-ground results for the people of the United States, especially for their experiences with services delivered.”

The Order sets out staffing, agenda-setting, and other required actions to make these policy goals real. In some in cases, the Order calls out specific websites, services, and forms/applications that need good civic design overhauls. It mandates that government staff centralize and simplify processes, and then create more user-friendly platforms and tools so that people can find and use them.


One other possible legal design policy is happening in New York City. (Hat tip to a colleague at the Racial Justice office of the city for alerting me to this).

The NYC Racial Justice Commission has some Ballot Proposals for 2022 — one of which (Proposal 2) would establish a Racial Equity Office in the City. Part of this office would include a mandate for good civic design, language access design, and overall human-centered service design.

Proposed policies to add to the NYC Charter, that would make good civic design law

These proposals are linking racial equity with good design. It’s baking in key design principles of empathetic, non-paternalistic respect for community members — and a commitment to inclusion through better government design. If passed, this Citywide Access Design project would be a leader in ensuring that diverse community members can access the government services they need.


Do you have other examples of government agencies recognizing the importance of good legal and civic design? And how it was established as a law, rule, or policy? Please share!

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Class Blog Uncategorized

Human-Centered Computable Contracts

Margaret Hagan, Dec 16, 2021

In Winter Quarter, our Lab Team is working with the Stanford Law CodeX team, to co-teach a new class at Stanford Law School. It is a hands-on, project-based class, about how to make insurance contracts more accessible, intelligent, and human centered. It builds on our past classes on user-friendly privacy policies, and contract design labs.

The class is 808L Human Centered Computable Contracts (https://law.stanford.edu/courses/policy-practicum-human-centered-computable-contracts/).

How do we make insurance contracts that consumers can understand — and than harness all the potential of tech & choice engines?

We will be working with regulators of the insurance industry & consumer protection advocates. The focus is ‘How can we develop more user-accessible models of insurance contracts, so that more people can be strategic & capable in this complex system?’

Students will be:

  • Interviewing consumers about how they typically interact with insurance contracts (like in healthcare, housing, and otherwise). Also understand what consequences have happened for people, depending on how they’ve shopped for and used insurance.
  • Map out key user breakdowns, incentives and interests, and behavioral heuristics that could support people’s strategic decision making
  • Research what new tech models are possible, to make complex choices & documents more user-friendly
  • Test prototypes for computable insurance contracts, to see if people can use them — what works & doesn’t
  • Propose key principles, interfaces, and metrics for what makes a human-centered insurance contract

The class work will feed into the large initiatives in the law school, including CodeX’s Insurance Initiative. It will also be part of global research on proactive law, computable contracts, and new kinds of disclosure design.

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Current Projects

Can a legal aid group send proactive texts to people who have been sued?

More legal aid and court groups are excited to use text message strategies to reach people facing lawsuits. Texting may help encourage participation, increase uptake of free services, and empower people to avoid defaults & other bad legal outcomes.

But the problem many of them face is how to legally & ethically reach out to members of the public through text. If they don’t already have a relationship with a person, can they initiate a texting relationship with them?

For example, if a legal aid group sees that a person has been sued for eviction in a local county court, can they proactively send them a text message (especially if they have the person’s phone number from the court docket info or from a phone-lookup service)?

The Legal Services Corporation recently published an Advisory Opinion that walks through guidance to this question, to show legal aid groups how they can do this proactive text message outreach on a topic like eviction services — and still be in compliance with the law. They also have a Program Letter that explains how legal aid groups can do proactive texting without violating federal anti-spam laws.

Advisory Opinion on legal aid proactive texting

See this 2020 Advisory opinion on proactive text message outreach from the LSC to legal aid groups.

https://www.lsc.gov/about-lsc/laws-regulations-and-guidance/advisory-opinions/advisory-opinion-2020-004

Program Letter on legal aid proactive texting

Also see this 2022 Program Letter from the LSC that walks through explicitly how proactive text message out reach can be done, in compliance with federal laws. Our Lab had written to the LSC to ask this question, because we had many legal aid colleagues who were thinking about adopting a text message reminder strategy & we wanted to make sure that the community knew how to do this in compliance with laws against spam or other violations.

https://lsc-live.app.box.com/s/e8ke8nv61ndibq1q7lx866lisw7y2awt

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Current Projects

What does a user-centered eviction court summons look like?

Margaret Hagan, Sep 14, 2021

If you are sued by your landlord to evict you from your home, how would you like to find out?

The papers you get from the court — the Summons to the eviction trial, and the Complaint from your landlord about why they’re suing from you — most often are dense, legalistic documents.

These pieces of paper can set the tone for the eviction legal process. And they can communicate: is the court for you? If you show up to the eviction trial, are you going to be able to protect yourself, and get your voice heard? Or is this going to be so intimidating & confusing that it’s not even worth it to show up?

And even more fundamentally: can you even understand these documents? Is it clear that:

  • you have been sued
  • that you have rights and groups who can help you
  • that if you don’t come to your court hearing that you could be evicted by a sheriff?

Our Legal Design Lab has collaborated with the Hamilton County Municipal Court in Ohio to reimagine how people

We took the current court eviction summons and did a series of multi-stakeholder workshops to reimagine its look, feel, and content to make it more user-centered. We created and refined a new summons, and have been piloting it in the court to see if we can increase tenants’ participation in the court process and use of legal services.

Here is how the traditional court summons looks like, and what we found in our workshops that needed to be fixed.

Design review of traditional eviction summons, with user feedback annotated on

We then had brainstorming and prototyping workshops in Cincinnati to create a new eviction summons design. We had plain language and visual design principles front of mind. And we also had tenants, landlords, advocates, and court officials contribute their preferences (as well as legal and statutory requirements).

Here is our finalized new summons design.

Our new Eviction Summons design, with annotations of reasons and principles for our choices

We will have study results about whether the new summons resulted in more people attending their hearing & using legal aid services. Preliminary results indicate that the new summons did increase the participation rate/decrease the default rate (though COVID has been a confounder!).

We do have some design principles for user-centered court documents, notifications, and summons that other groups can use.

Design Principles for Effective Court Notices & Summons

Each new design should be driven by local stakeholders & their needs. But these principles can help your court or legal design team create court documents that people will be more likely to read — and take action with.

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Class Blog Design Research

People’s experiences with eviction prevention

From a team in the Justice By Design: Eviction Class, 2022.

I: Overview of Activities 

  1. Our policy lab interviewed sixteen tenants, navigators, and landlords across the country, learning from their experiences and hearing their ideas. We asked general questions about their experiences with eviction, their experiences with seeking out help, and their ideas for change.
  2. We synthesized interviews by creating personas, user journeys, and visual representations of salient moments gleaned from the interviews. 
  3. Finally, we shared common findings to capture pervasive issues and suggest potential reforms.

II: Problems identified based off interviews with tenants

Informal evictions

Many tenants described falling behind on rent and feeling that they had to move out, even before they had been served with any formal eviction documents. Landlords often don’t follow proper notice procedures for eviction, telling their tenants to pay what they owe or start planning to move out. Considering a pervasive fear of the legal system, as discussed below, it is difficult to imagine tenants being empowered to hold their landlords accountable for breaking the law.

Especially for tenants behind on rent, many lack a feeling of agency to look for resources. They assume that because they are behind on rent, they will not have any recourse to resist displacement. 

The fact that many evictions occur informally presents unique challenges for policy implementation. Eviction reforms centered around courts are common, but legal and court reforms will not affect the experiences of those evicted extralegally. These experiences highlight the need for empowering interventions that occur before the eviction experience; tenants need to know of their rights and resources before a housing scare occurs. Any intervention that does not reach clients pre-eviction may be too late. 

Tenant Story: John 
John was informally evicted from his home in San Francisco. Due to local tenant protections, John very likely could have received legal aid—if he knew where to look. But John was evicted informally; he was told to vacate by his landlord, without being provided any proper legal notice. 
John was recovering from injuries he sustained during an accident, so he did not feel that he had the ability to look for any financial or legal resources. Unable to make up the rent he owed, John and his family had to move out. They were able to live temporarily with friends and family until they found a new place to live.
John’s story is a prime example of how even when robust legal or financial resources exist, these resources provide no recourse to informally evicted tenants who lack awareness of their options. Ensuring that tenants are informed of their rights and resources before crisis occurs is critical.

Complex eviction notices

Receiving a Notice to Quit or an eviction summons could be a potential point of intervention; these notices ideally would tell tenants: (1) why they are receiving the notice; (2) how they can respond to the notice; and (3) resources they can seek if they need assistance.

Formal eviction notices are far from this ideal. To most tenants, they appear to be warnings that they need to leave, rather than indicators that they have options as part of an ongoing process.

Notices tend to be written in confusing English, and are often not served in foreign languages. Some states have attempted to simplify eviction notices. In Massachusetts, for example, an eviction summons gives the tenant a court date. Getting to court can be difficult, but being given a date and location seems easier to comply with than the requirement of making an official legal filing. Greater Boston Legal Services has a free online service that prompts tenants with questions to answer in plain English, then creates a form that tenants can use in Housing Court to help them defend themselves. Instead of forcing people to file an official Answer, giving tenants the option to fill out an online form where they can explain their situation could be much more tenant-friendly.

We also learned that the landlord-tenant relationship is becoming increasingly bureaucratized. Many tenants live not under mom-and-pop landlords, but rather under large, impersonal property management companies. These companies can churn out Notices to Quit summarily after tenants fall behind on rent—even if they fall behind for just a few days. Tenants feel slighted by this impersonal process; they are asked to vacate without anyone checking in on them or trying to work things out informally.

Property management companies provide an interesting wrinkle in how we think about policy implementation. Because their systems are bureaucratized (and may be less personally antagonistic toward non-paying tenants), it may be simpler for them to implement positive changes—like attaching an NAACP Navigator flier whenever they serve a Notice to Quit.

Tenant Story: Linda 
Linda works as a case manager for people affected by COVID, and her work includes assisting people through eviction scares. She is completely knowledgeable of all the resources available to tenants in her home state of Colorado. Because she lives under an impersonal property management company, she received a Notice to Quit after falling behind on rent for three days. 
Having lived in her home for some time without any issues, Linda was shocked and offended that the company would try to kick her out after being behind for just three days. And even though she knows the law, she reported that her ability to comprehend her rights was compromised when she received her notice—she started to second-guess her own knowledge. 
Linda acknowledges that if she did not have her specialized background knowledge, the notice would likely have prompted her to leave.

Fear of court and court inaccessibility

Most tenants we interviewed never really pictured their eviction scare as a legal issue. For most who sought recourse, their emphasis was on finding enough money to pay. Some tenants expressed uncertainty about what, if any, legal resources were available to them. Certain tenants expressed that they did not qualify for legal aid, yet they could not independently afford legal assistance. 

Beyond the problem of access to legal advice, many tenants expressed broad skepticism about court. There is a shared understanding that court is a protracted, exhausting endeavor. Having to balance that experience with a family, a job, and other obligations is challenging, and sometimes impossible. For some, going to court does not feel worth the risk of losing time for their other commitments, potentially having the black mark of a formal eviction on their record, exposing their children to a courthouse, or going against their landlord—who they identify as having more power within the system. 

Any interventions that focus on the legal process of eviction must consider the fact that many tenants are evicted informally, and that even tenants with the opportunity to go to court choose to avoid the process of legal resistance. If interventions are designed to make court more tenant-friendly and more feasible to navigate, these changes need to be communicated to tenants to change a widespread negative perception of the legal system.

Tenant Story: Linda 
As discussed above, Linda works with people being evicted, so she is very aware of tenant resources and legal rights. When she faced her own eviction scare, however, she did not see the court as a viable option, and she instead opted for finding financial assistance. Certainly, going to court could yield a positive result, but the prospect of being formally evicted and having that on her permanent record was too risky. The fact that even someone as knowledgeable as Linda was scared of the courts is highly telling. 

Fear of “fighting,” desire for help

Related to the fear of court, tenants generally had overall apprehension at the thought of “fighting for their rights” or resisting. Due to the high stress of eviction, as well as the numerous obligations many tenants have to balance, the notion of resisting doesn’t always seem feasible or attractive. Most tenants focused not on resisting, but rather on getting some assistance and moving on with their lives.

Many eviction prevention policies place a heavy emphasis on lawyering, and encouraging tenants to resist through the various legal defenses they can raise. But to better meet tenants’ needs and desires, non-legal help (like the Navigators) may be a preferable intervention. Several tenants sought out rental assistance, but not legal assistance, suggesting that tenants may disfavor interventions that are seen as overly combative. There was also a widespread consensus that rental assistance was more accessible than legal services. Because legal interventions seem to be disfavored, policy that focuses on strengthening the legal backbone of eviction defense may fail to affect tenants who are simply seeking to move on as soon as possible and reach a place of stability. A good area for further inquiry would be asking tenants how they feel about lawyers generally as a resource. Would they be comfortable reaching out to a lawyer, or do they feel more comfortable reaching out to non-lawyer advocates?

One organization that focuses on prevention, rather than resistance, is HomeStart in Boston. HomeStart’s first line of defense in eviction prevention is a rental assistance payment program that seeks to help tenants halt the eviction process and pay back rent. HomeStart also has non-lawyer advocates who accompany clients to Housing Court, where they assist in negotiating feasible payment plans with landlords. HomeStart’s focus on holistic services and stability, rather than legal defense, may feel more accessible and comforting to tenants. 

Tenant Story: Ken 
Ken fell behind on rent and was served with an eviction notice after failing to resolve the issue informally with his landlord. Ken decided not to seek out legal aid or resist the eviction. He figured that the legal process would be too expensive. Plus, because he was behind on rent, he believed that he had no chance of asserting a legal defense. 
Ken was more comfortable reaching out to Southwest Behavioral and Health Services, where he was placed with a caseworker. Ken had a great experience seeking out holistic services. He was able to secure financial assistance to find a new home, and his caseworker also assisted him in filling out housing assistance applications. Ken now has Section 8 housing.

High stress

Several tenants communicated that they might have the ability to search for resources if the housing problems were happening to someone else, but that their ability to problem-solve was significantly clouded by their high levels of stress. Tenants have to balance family obligations, work, health, etc., and the emotional turmoil of housing insecurity means that it is often not feasible to seek out proper channels of assistance under these circumstances.

The reality of eviction is that even the most resourceful of tenants are often unable to figure out where to go to get help. Even if tenants know their rights, it may be asking too much for tenants undergoing this traumatizing process to resist. Perhaps interventions should therefore be centered around providing tenants the assistance of a third party, like a Navigator, who can take on the burden of finding resources. In other words, interventions that focus solely on empowerment and self-advocacy may fall short in these situations of heightened vulnerability.

General difficulty in securing resources

  Many tenants had frustrations with the process of attempting to secure resources. One tenant, Darlene, actually sought legal aid, but the offices she contacted were unresponsive due to overwhelming demand. Darlene became frustrated, and ultimately stopped trying to seek out legal aid when the stress of her impending eviction became overwhelming. Another tenant, Linda, was frustrated by the ERAP process. Her ERAP payment would take months to process, but she had very little time to pay the rent she owed. Linda ended up having to borrow from friends and family to stay in her home. Multiple tenants expressed a desire for an easy-to-access, uniform service for rental assistance.

A desire—but no outlet—to help

One of the most unfortunate ironies of eviction is that it is such a widely shared experience in some communities, yet the experience of being evicted is completely isolating. Many tenants who have experienced an eviction scare gain practical knowledge about best practices, but that knowledge is lost if not shared with others. 

Several tenants expressed gratitude that they were able to share their eviction stories, and were hopeful that the information they relayed would help others in similar situations. A surprising number of tenants showed an interest in becoming more formally involved in eviction prevention and attending events to share their experiences. Being evicted is a disempowering experience, and we heard tenants express that talking about their experiences was helpful. People seemed to appreciate having their voices heard, even if just for a brief interview. Eviction is a community problem, not an individual problem, so interventions should seek to integrate larger communities.

Tenant Story: Jen
Jen experienced manipulation and invasions of privacy when she had unofficial housing contracts. After being in two situations in which she was taken advantage of by landlords, she now feels empowered to speak up for others in the Vietnamese community. She knows many people are facing the same issues, and she wants to use her voice to stand up for her community.

III: Experience-Centric Solutions

Key Takeaways

Based on the conversations we had with tenants across the country, we found three key takeaways from the eviction process that are integral to any user-centered, experientially-motivated solutions: 

  1. Communication is key. For each tenant that we spoke to, communication, primarily between tenants and landlords, though also with families, employers, court employees, judges, government officials, and more, seemed to fail. The tight timelines of evictions can jam already busy communications lines, and even a day of unresponsiveness or a misunderstood court order can be the difference between a family staying in their home with their back rent paid, or living in temporary housing while struggling to find a new home. Facilitating clear communication throughout the eviction process will be key to ensuring fair, mutually beneficial outcomes.
  2. Isolation is disastrous. Almost each conversation that we conducted with evicted tenants revealed the overwhelming sense of isolation that endured throughout their eviction processes. With no one to turn to, tenants were consistently forced to adopt short-term, fight-or-flight thinking to best cope with the situation at hand. This often meant accepting unlawful evictions, or not knowing who to call to access the legal aid they were eligible for. When tenants have no support through the eviction process, they must consistently make decisions out of necessity. Supported, connected tenants, on the other hand, are much more likely to fight for their rights and reach mutually beneficial solutions.
  3. Awareness is lacking. Tenants are nearly universally lost when they receive an eviction notice or are made aware of an informal eviction process. Up to the point of eviction, they have received no education on how to manage an eviction process or their rights as a tenant. Generally, once the eviction process has begun, eviction education is almost useless—dealing with a current landlord, in addition to working to find a suitable new home, is stressful enough. Even in cities with robust tenant services and resources, like San Francisco, tenants still do not know who to reach out to when they are served with an eviction notice, and are thus not able to make use of the available services. Tenants must be informed enough to know where to turn, even if this is just knowing an urgent, non-emergency number, like 311.

Key Opportunities

Inspired by current policy solutions and pilots across the US, we used these key takeaways from tenant interviews to determine three potential opportunities for intervention in the current eviction landscape: 

Mandatory Mediation

Currently, almost all jurisdictions see eviction cases go straight to the courtroom. Tenants often choose to forgo their right to a trial out of intimidation. With mandated mediation, tenants have the opportunity to meet the landlord on a more even playing field, where mutual benefit is incentivized for both parties, in addition to offering a better opportunity to maintain the tenant-landlord relationship. Courts benefit, too, from reduced caseloads. This program has worked well during the pandemic in Philadelphia, where the city’s Eviction Diversion program has mandated that landlords go to mediation with their tenants before they are able to evict them. Philadelphia is unique, though, and many municipal and state jurisdictions face political opposition to any measures perceived to be biased toward renters or more costly than conventional courts. The program also fails to address informal evictions. While not a cure-all, and while an eviction notice mandating mediation remains frightening for many, we believe this could be an important step toward empowering both landlords and tenants to achieve an agreeable, workable solution that cuts costs and effort for all involved.

Navigator Programs

Given the discouraging prevalence of isolation during the eviction process, the potential to empower tenants to find their best solution through support and companionship is very important to experience-centric innovation in the eviction landscape. With housing navigator programs, like the NAACP pilot program in Richland County, SC, tenants at any stage of the eviction process can be connected with a community member who has been trained to understand the local eviction landscape and can educate tenants on their options and the available resources. This engages the local community on the issue of eviction, and provides both support and a know-your-rights knowledge base for tenants. Still, this comes with challenges: navigator recruitment and training, maintaining the boundary between advice and UPL, and the organizational overhead. Even when those are addressed, if tenants in need don’t know about the program, it can also be yet another helpful resource that goes unused. Nonetheless, when executed correctly, navigator programs have the potential to guide isolated and uninformed tenants to their best interest outcomes.

Renter Education and Simplified Notices

Most importantly, in our conversations with tenants, we found that eviction is nearly always an emergency. Even when renters expect recourse for nonpayment of rent, or were threatened by their landlord in the past, an eviction is always a moment of stress that no one feels prepared for. The opportunity here is obvious: What if eviction were something that every renter was prepared for? Or, what if every tenant at least knew one website to visit or number to call in case of urgent eviction needs? This is the case in Milwaukee, where the Rent For Success Program has worked hard to ensure that every tenant in the city has access to basic information and education to enable successful renting, beneficial to both tenants and landlords. While this solution may meet the most needs, and serves a clear function to better enable the earlier two, it too has challenges. How does one implement such a program? Is it mandatory for all municipal renters? Despite these questions, education is an exciting opportunity for individual municipalities to develop unique, local programs that can iterate, evolve, and grow to have tangible impacts on both landlords and tenants.

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What are the Barriers Tenants Face to Accessing Eviction Prevention Help?

A design research report from Stanford’s Justice By Design: Eviction class in Winter 2022

This report is by the class team Trevor Byrne, Emma Dolan, Jordan Payne, Alexandra Reeves, Amy Zhai — along with the teaching team Nora Al Haider, and Margaret Hagan.

As the eviction crisis spreads throughout the United States, there is an access to justice paradox that has emerged.

More and more groups — legal aid, court self-help centers, city governments, emergency rent programs, and legal help websites — are trying to get help out to tenants who are at risk of eviction. These groups have legal guidance, rental assistance, and mediation resources to help tenants pay back their rent, make agreements with their landlords, or fight back against eviction in court.

But there’s a disconnect. Many tenants never reach out for help. They don’t call these groups, visit their offices, or go to their websites. Or they may start out to seek help, but then fall off during the process. They cannot ‘complete their justice journey’. They’re not able to assert their rights, use free services, or protect themselves from a forced move.

So, what are the barriers that are stopping renters from seeking or using legal help & other services, when they are at risk of forced displacement from their homes — and all the collateral consequences that come with an eviction?

That was the driving question of our Winter 2022 Stanford Law School class, Justice By Design: Eviction. We have taught versions of this class throughout the past few years as a ‘policy lab’ class at SLS. This time we partnered again with the NAACP as our policy lab partner, because they also are interested in engaging more tenants with legal and community help when they’re at risk of forced displacement or eviction.

In this Winter 2022 class, our focus was talking with tenants who had eviction experiences. From their stories, through deep, qualitative interviews, our goal was to identify these barriers to seeking help, as well as to spot opportunities for more effective outreach and interventions to help tenants at risk.

Notes from our class during our interviews & synthesis of stories

This report summarizes what we heard from our tenant interviews, as well as the interventions and strategies the class identified to encourage more tenants to increase their ability to defend themselves, use services, and avoided the harmful consequences of an eviction.

How our class did this user research

Our class team had students from all over Stanford, who were interested in learning more about eviction, housing policy, public interest technology, and justice system reform. Justice By Design: Eviction was a 9-week class, listed in the Law School, but open to undergraduates and graduates from across the university.

After introductory weeks that taught the students about the basics of the eviction crisis and how housing courts work, then our teaching team prepared the students for qualitative interviews with renters who had experiences with eviction. This included prep on ethical design work and engagement with the community, as well as a primer on the past eviction prevention work done in our class & Legal Design Lab.

Our teaching team had recruited renters through social media ads that asked, “Do you have experience with eviction? Do you want to speak to our university team about your experiences and ideas?” We also offered Amazon gift cards in compensation for being interviewed.

The students, in pairs or teams of 3, interviewed 16 tenants, navigators, and landlords across the country. The goal of the interviews was to learn from the tenants’ experiences, identify their barriers to participating in the justice system, and hear their ideas. We asked general questions about their experiences with eviction, their experiences with seeking out help, and their ideas for change.

After conducting the interviews, then the student teams synthesized interviews by creating personas, user journeys, and visual representations of salient moments gleaned from the interviews. They also analyzed the various stories and proposals to identify commonalities that point to pervasive issues and that suggest potential reforms.

Big Takeaways on Tenant Barriers & Needs in Eviction Prevention

When we talk about Access to Justice in evictions for tenants, often the primary recommendation is to provide a Right to Counsel — a guaranteed free lawyer for anyone who reaches out for help with an eviction lawsuit. What we found, though, is that the A2J problem and needs are more complicated than that.

In the interviews, we heard repeatedly from renters:

  • We don’t actually want to go to court or fight this. We just want a better way to move past this problem with the landlord or threat of eviction. These tenants prefer not to get a lawyer or do anything to make the situation more adversarial or more formal. They want to avoid the stress, cost, and fight of entering the justice system. Some people reasoned that engaging with lawyers or courts would make the whole experience more destructive for their family and their own mental health. Or, they chose to focus on making a plan of action focused more on getting money and housing choices to get a stable transition to a new living situation. If they have limited bandwidth and time, they choose ‘planning their move’ rather than ‘fighting in the legal system’.
  • The whole thing happened so fast & I was so stressed, that I couldn’t even reach out for help. This theme came up repeatedly. In some cases it was based on a sense of being paralyzed with stress, feeling overwhelmed, and not wanting to address the problem they were dealing with. In other cases, it was linked to an unfamiliarity with how to get help, who could help, or how to even talk about what was happening. The result of these situations was that the tenant doesn’t seek help. They’re not telling people that they’re in a problem — they’re not searching online — they’re not calling groups that could help them.
  • Landlords could be a key channel of information, but right now they aren’t. Even for tenants who had relatively good relationships with their landlord, they weren’t able to get information about their rights, processes, or services from their landlord. From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that the landlord should be the key provider of key information: they are a business-owner, with repeat relationships, and obligations to provide quality and safe housing. But right now most landlords don’t seem to be aware of the law around how tenancies can and should be ended, when they are allowed to evict, what services are available to repair relationships or assist with rent, or other key information to prevent forced moves & evictions.
  • I figured that I made the mistake, so I just had to leave. Many people had problems paying their rent, and this was the instigation of their eviction. They knew they weren’t able to make their full rent, and so assumed they were left with only one path: to just move out. Because it was ‘their mistake’, they didn’t feel they had any right to ask the landlord for a renegotiation, settlement, or other kind of way to stay in their home. They also didn’t think to reach out for services that could help them make up the rent they owed, or find legal strategies to stay.
Two of our common stories: how hard it is during an eviction crisis to actually reach out for help — and the feeling of being the one who made a mistake, and thus without any recourse

Key Problems with the eviction system, from the interviews

The students went through the experiences of the interviewed tenants, to spot where the system is breaking down. When did people not know about their rights as a tenant? When were they not able to participate effectively in the justice system? When were they feeling stressed, fearful, and desperate? When were they being harmed because they didn’t know about help — or they didn’t feel they could access it?

We identified 7 common problem areas that tenants were dealing with. These all constitute barriers to finding and accessing help, that could help the tenant on their ‘justice journey’ to getting procedural and substantive justice in their housing problem. Some of these barriers are psychological perceptions or situations; others are structural problems with how the justice system, legal services, and financial services are set up. Many of them are a mixture of both — a barrier that combines the burdens of the person’s individual situation that make it hard for them to seek out help, along with institutional features or legacies that make the system difficult to access.

  1. Informal Evictions where landlords pressured tenants to leave without going to court — and thus also not activating the eviction prevention service network
  2. Eviction Warning & Court Notices are complex, intimidating, and dis-empowering
  3. Court is Fearsome and Inaccessible, so people would rather avoid it — both for rational and strategic goals, as well as the stress and intimidation of it
  4. Wanting to avoid a ‘Fight’, with instead a focus on getting help and services (or just wanting this problem to end)— not pursuing an adversarial response against their landlord
  5. High Stress during the problem time, so much that people who normally are resourceful and proactive in finding help for their problems were rendered unable to seek out help or be strategic
  6. The burden of accessing services, so that even if a person started trying to get legal or financial help, the time and work required was too much to make them usable or actionable.
  7. Difficulty in sharing one’s hard-won expertise with peers, even when a tenant has figured out what to do (and not to do) to access resources and prevent an eviction — and they want to share this knowledge with others — there is no clear pathway to do this peer-to-peer education

We have more details and example tenant stories for each of these 7 problem areas. These all include anonymized details from the interviews we conducted with tenants across the US.

Problem 1: Renters caught in Informal Evictions — where no service groups are connecting with them

Many tenants described falling behind on rent and feeling that they had to move out, even before they had been served with any formal eviction documents. Landlords often don’t follow proper notice procedures for eviction, telling their tenants to pay what they owe or start planning to move out. Considering a pervasive fear of the legal system, as discussed below, it is difficult to imagine tenants being empowered to hold their landlords accountable for breaking the law.

Especially for tenants behind on rent, many lack a feeling of agency to look for resources. They assume that because they are behind on rent, they will not have any recourse to resist displacement.

The fact that many evictions occur informally presents unique challenges for policy implementation. Many eviction reforms are centered on the court process. The assumption baked into these programs is that services should be unlocked once a landlord goes to court and files an action against a tenant.

But legal and court reforms will not affect the experiences of those evicted extralegally. The landlord doesn’t go to the court, there is no official record of the possible eviction, and thus the services &the policies are never triggered. The tenant (and the landlord) don’t know that these financial, legal, and mediation services even exist.

These tenants’ experiences highlight the need for empowering interventions that occur before the eviction experience. Tenants (and landlords) need to know of their rights and resources before a housing scare occurs. Service groups need to find ways to connect with people who are not in the official court records. Any intervention that does not reach clients pre-eviction may be too late.

John’s Story: Informal Eviction even in a city full of resources

John (we have changed his name) was informally evicted from his home in San Francisco. Due to local tenant protections, John very likely could have received legal aid — if he knew where to look. But John was evicted informally; he was told to vacate by his landlord, without being provided any proper legal notice.

John was recovering from injuries he sustained during an accident, so he did not feel that he had the ability to look for any financial or legal resources. Unable to make up the rent he owed, John and his family had to move out. They were able to live temporarily with friends and family until they found a new place to live.

John’s story is a prime example of how even when robust legal or financial resources exist, these resources provide no recourse to informally evicted tenants who lack awareness of their options. Ensuring that tenants are informed of their rights and resources before a crisis occurs is critical.

The storyboard of John’s justice journey — that ended in an informal eviction, with no exercise of his right to counsel or use of ERAP money.

Problem 2: Eviction Notices are Complex & Inaccessible

Receiving a Notice to Quit or an eviction summons could be a potential point of intervention. These notices ideally would tell tenants:

  1. why they are receiving the notice;
  2. how they can respond to the notice; and
  3. resources they can seek if they need assistance.

Formal eviction notices are far from this ideal. To most tenants, they appear to be warnings that they need to leave, rather than indicators that they have options as part of an ongoing process.

Notices tend to be written in confusing English, and are often not served in foreign languages.

Some states have attempted to simplify eviction notices. In Massachusetts, for example, an eviction summons gives the tenant a court date. Getting to court can be difficult, but being given a date and location seems easier to comply with than the requirement of making an official legal filing.

Greater Boston Legal Services has a free online service that prompts tenants with questions to answer in plain English, then creates a form that tenants can use in Housing Court to help them defend themselves. Instead of forcing people to file an official Answer, giving tenants the option to fill out an online form where they can explain their situation could be much more tenant-friendly.

The Problem of Bureaucratized Landlord-Tenant Communications

We also learned that the landlord-tenant relationship is becoming increasingly bureaucratized. Many tenants live not under mom-and-pop landlords, but rather under large, impersonal property management companies. These companies can churn out Notices to Quit summarily after tenants fall behind on rent — even if they fall behind for just a few days. Tenants feel slighted by this impersonal process; they are asked to vacate without anyone checking in on them or trying to work things out informally.

Property management companies provide an interesting wrinkle in how we think about policy implementation. Because their systems are bureaucratized (and may be less personally antagonistic toward non-paying tenants), it may be simpler for them to implement positive changes — like attaching an NAACP Navigator flier whenever they serve a Notice to Quit.

Linda’s Story: How a Notice Confuses rather than Empowers

Linda works as a case manager for people affected by COVID, and her work includes assisting people through eviction scares. She is completely knowledgeable of all the resources available to tenants in her home state of Colorado. Because she lives under an impersonal property management company, she received a Notice to Quit after falling behind on rent for three days.

Having lived in her home for some time without any issues, Linda was shocked and offended that the company would try to kick her out after being behind for just three days. And even though she knows the law, she reported that her ability to comprehend her rights was compromised when she received her notice — she started to second-guess her own knowledge.

Linda acknowledges that if she did not have her specialized background knowledge, the notice would likely have prompted her to leave.

Problem 3: Fear of court and court inaccessibility

Most tenants we interviewed never really pictured their eviction scare as a legal issue. For most who sought recourse, their emphasis was on finding enough money to pay. Some tenants expressed uncertainty about what, if any, legal resources were available to them. Certain tenants expressed that they did not qualify for legal aid, yet they could not independently afford legal assistance.

Quotes and metaphors we heard from tenants in our interviews

Beyond the problem of access to legal advice, many tenants expressed broad skepticism about participating in court. There is a shared understanding that court is a protracted, exhausting endeavor. Having to balance that experience with a family, a job, and other obligations is challenging and sometimes impossible. For some, going to court does not feel worth the risk of losing time for their other commitments, potentially having the black mark of a formal eviction on their record, exposing their children to a courthouse, or going against their landlord — who they identify as having more power within the system.

Any interventions that focus on the legal process of eviction must consider the fact that many tenants are evicted informally, and that even tenants with the opportunity to go to court choose to avoid the process of legal resistance. If interventions are designed to make court more tenant-friendly and more feasible to navigate, these changes need to be communicated to tenants to change a widespread negative perception of the legal system.

Linda’s Story: Going to Court Isn’t a Viable Option

As discussed above, Linda works with people being evicted, so she is very aware of tenant resources and legal rights. When she faced her own eviction scare, however, she did not see the court as a viable option, and she instead opted for finding financial assistance.

Certainly, going to court could yield a positive result, but the prospect of being formally evicted and having that on her permanent record was too risky. The fact that even someone as knowledgeable as Linda was scared of the courts should be highly-telling to policy-makers.

Problem 4: Fear of “fighting,” desire for help

Related to the fear of court, tenants generally had overall apprehension at the thought of “fighting for their rights” or resisting. Due to the high stress of eviction, as well as the numerous obligations many tenants have to balance, the notion of resisting doesn’t always seem feasible or attractive. Most tenants focused not on resisting, but rather on getting some assistance and moving on with their lives.

Many eviction prevention policies place a heavy emphasis on lawyering, and encouraging tenants to resist through the various legal defenses they can raise. But to better meet tenants’ needs and desires, non-legal help (like the Navigators) may be a preferable intervention. Several tenants sought out rental assistance, but not legal assistance, suggesting that tenants may disfavor interventions that are seen as overly combative. There was also a widespread consensus that rental assistance was more accessible than legal services.

The tenants we spoke with seem to disfavor legal interventions, policy that focuses on strengthening the legal backbone of eviction defense may fail to affect tenants who are simply seeking to move on as soon as possible and reach a place of stability. A good area for further inquiry would be asking tenants how they feel about lawyers generally as a resource. Would they be comfortable reaching out to a lawyer, or do they feel more comfortable reaching out to non-lawyer advocates?

One organization that focuses on prevention, rather than resistance, is HomeStart in Boston. HomeStart’s first line of defense in eviction prevention is a rental assistance payment program that seeks to help tenants halt the eviction process and pay back rent. HomeStart also has non-lawyer advocates who accompany clients to Housing Court, where they assist in negotiating feasible payment plans with landlords. HomeStart’s focus on holistic services and stability, rather than legal defense, may feel more accessible and comforting to tenants.

Ken’s Story: I’d Rather Get Services than Engage in a Legal Fight

Ken fell behind on rent and was served with an eviction notice after failing to resolve the issue informally with his landlord. Ken decided not to seek out legal aid or resist the eviction. He figured that the legal process would be too expensive. Plus, because he was behind on rent, he believed that he had no chance of asserting a legal defense.

Ken was more comfortable reaching out to Southwest Behavioral and Health Services, where he was placed with a caseworker. Ken had a great experience seeking out holistic services. He was able to secure financial assistance to find a new home, and his caseworker also assisted him in filling out housing assistance applications. Ken now has Section 8 housing.

Problem 5: High stress in the Eviction Journey

Several tenants communicated that they might have the ability to search for resources if the housing problems were happening to someone else, but that their ability to problem-solve was significantly clouded by their high levels of stress. Tenants have to balance family obligations, work, health, and other life stressors. The emotional turmoil of housing insecurity means that it is often not feasible to seek out proper channels of assistance under these circumstances.

The reality of eviction is that even the most resourceful of tenants are often unable to figure out where to go to get help. Even if tenants know their rights, it may be asking too much for tenants undergoing this traumatizing process to resist.

Perhaps interventions should therefore be centered around providing tenants the assistance of a third party, like a Navigator, who can take on the burden of finding resources. In other words, interventions that focus solely on empowerment and self-advocacy may fall short in these situations of heightened vulnerability.

Problem 6: Accessing Services is Burdensome

Aside from the problems of tenants not knowing about services — there are problems for those who have taken that step on their justice journey, are trying to get help, and still it is not solving their problem.

Many tenants who attempted to secure financial or legal help struggled to actually make it work.

One tenant, Darlene, actually sought legal aid, but the offices she contacted were unresponsive due to overwhelming demand. Darlene became frustrated, and ultimately stopped trying to seek out legal aid when the stress of her impending eviction became overwhelming.

Another tenant, Linda, was frustrated by the ERAP process. Her ERAP payment would take months to process, but she had very little time to pay the rent she owed. Linda ended up having to borrow from friends and family to stay in her home. Multiple tenants expressed a desire for an easy-to-access, uniform service for rental assistance.

Problem 7: A desire — but no outlet — to help others

One of the most unfortunate ironies of eviction is that it is such a widely shared experience in some communities, yet the experience of being evicted is completely isolating. Many tenants who have experienced an eviction scare gain practical knowledge about best practices, but that knowledge is lost if not shared with others.

Several tenants expressed gratitude that they were able to share their eviction stories, and were hopeful that the information they relayed would help others in similar situations. A surprising number of tenants showed an interest in becoming more formally involved in eviction prevention and attending events to share their experiences.

Being evicted is a disempowering experience, and we heard tenants express that talking about their experiences was helpful. People seemed to appreciate having their voices heard, even if just for a brief interview. Eviction is a community problem, not an individual problem, so interventions should seek to integrate larger communities.

Jen’s Story: I have hard-won experience — how can it help others?

Jen has gone through eviction several times. She experienced manipulation and invasions of privacy when she had unofficial housing contracts.

After being in these two situations in which she was taken advantage of by landlords, she now feels empowered to speak up for others in the Vietnamese community. She knows many people are facing the same issues, and she wants to use her voice to stand up for her community. During our interview, she asked if there are ways that she could help spread key information & get more help to people who are in situations like hers.

Eviction Prevention Ideas, Based on Tenant’s Experiences Tell us about

Based on the conversations we had with tenants across the country, the class identified 3 key takeaways from the eviction process that are integral to any user-centered solution. If services and policies are going to reach tenants, engage them, and help them solve their key problems — then they should be designed with these guiding principles in mind.

Eviction Prevention Principle 1: Early, Preventative Communication is key

If a service is going to reach people & be used by them — then the service provider needs to already be in communication with them before the landlord-tenant crisis boils up to possible eviction.

That means that legal aid, court, ERAP, and other groups need to be building a relationship with tenants and landlords as early as possible.

For each tenant that we spoke to, communication during the eviction crisis — primarily between tenants and landlords, though also with families, employers, court employees, judges, government officials, and more — seemed to fail. The tight timelines of evictions can jam already busy communications lines, and even a day of unresponsiveness or a misunderstood court order can be the difference between a family staying in their home with their back rent paid, or living in temporary housing while struggling to find a new home.

Facilitating clear communication throughout the eviction process will be key to ensuring fair, mutually beneficial outcomes. And often that means building up a communication channel or relationship before a person is in a highly stressful timeline.

Eviction Prevention Principle 2: Isolation is disastrous, and there is power in peer-to-peer support

Almost each conversation that we conducted with evicted tenants revealed the overwhelming sense of isolation that endured throughout their eviction processes.

With no one to turn to, tenants were consistently forced to adopt short-term, fight-or-flight thinking to best cope with the situation at hand. This often meant accepting unlawful evictions, or not knowing who to call to access the legal aid they were eligible for.

When tenants have no support through the eviction process, they must consistently make decisions out of necessity. Supported, connected tenants, on the other hand, are much more likely to fight for their rights and reach mutually beneficial solutions.

This points to solutions that build up community networks, issue-spotting bots, peer-to-peer navigation — -and other solutions that can help identify when someone is going through an eviction crisis and be a supportive, accessible, low-burden way to find resources and make strategic choices.

Considering that many tenants have hard-won expertise in navigating eviction choices and services — can there be initiatives that unleash peer-to-peer support in communities? This can overcome isolation & build community knowledge of what to do.

Eviction Prevention Principle 3: Tackle the Low Awareness of Help Resources.

Right now, tenants and landlords have very low awareness that groups can help them with their problems or evictions. They don’t know that there are legal aid groups or ERAP services.

Tenants are nearly universally lost when they receive an eviction notice or are made aware of an informal eviction process. Up to the point of eviction, they have received no education on how to manage an eviction process or their rights as a tenant. Generally, once the eviction process has begun, eviction education is almost useless — dealing with a current landlord, in addition to working to find a suitable new home, is stressful enough.

Even in cities with robust tenant services and resources, like San Francisco, tenants still do not know who to reach out to when they are served with an eviction notice, and are thus not able to make use of the available services. Tenants must be informed enough to know where to turn, even if this is just knowing an urgent, non-emergency number, like 311.

How do we get more people to know what to do when facing eviction? Ideally, there can be public education campaigns like over social media, news, schools, and other places. And there can be memorable, easy-to-access channels to reach out for help.

Key Opportunities for Courts, Local Governments, and Legal Help groups to prevent evictions

Inspired by current policy solutions and pilots across the US, we used these key takeaways from tenant interviews to determine three potential opportunities for intervention in the current eviction landscape:

Establishing Mandatory, Early Mediation

Currently, almost all jurisdictions see eviction cases go straight to the courtroom. Tenants often choose to forgo their right to a trial out of intimidation. Or, they don’t want the stress of having an adversarial ‘fight’ at the same time as they are juggling a possible housing move.

With mandated mediation, tenants have the opportunity to meet the landlord on a more even playing field, where mutual benefit is incentivized for both parties, in addition to offering a better opportunity to maintain the tenant-landlord relationship. Courts benefit, too, from reduced caseloads.

This program has worked well during the pandemic in Philadelphia, where the city’s Eviction Diversion program has mandated that landlords go to mediation with their tenants before they are able to evict them.

Philadelphia is unique, though, and many municipal and state jurisdictions face political opposition to any measures perceived to be biased toward renters or more costly than conventional courts. The program also fails to address informal evictions.

While not a cure-all, and while an eviction notice mandating mediation remains frightening for many, we believe this could be an important step toward empowering both landlords and tenants to achieve an agreeable, workable solution that cuts costs and effort for all involved.

Community-Based Housing Navigator Programs

Given the discouraging prevalence of isolation during the eviction process, the potential to empower tenants to find their best solution through support and companionship is very important to experience-centric innovation in the eviction landscape.

With housing navigator programs, like the NAACP pilot program in Richland County, South Carolina, tenants at any stage of the eviction process can be connected with a community member who has been trained to understand the local eviction landscape and can educate tenants on their options and the available resources. This engages the local community on the issue of eviction, and provides both support and a know-your-rights knowledge base for tenants.

Still, this comes with challenges: navigator recruitment and training, maintaining the boundary between advice and Unauthorized Practice of Law, and the organizational overhead. Even when those are addressed, if tenants in need don’t know about the program, it can also be yet another helpful resource that goes unused. Nonetheless, when executed correctly, navigator programs have the potential to guide isolated and uninformed tenants to their best interest outcomes.

Renter Education and Simplified Notices

Most importantly, in our conversations with tenants, we found that eviction is nearly always an emergency. Even when renters expect recourse for nonpayment of rent, or were threatened by their landlord in the past, an eviction is always a moment of stress that no one feels prepared for. The opportunity here is obvious: What if eviction were something that every renter was prepared for? Or, what if every tenant at least knew one website to visit or number to call in case of urgent eviction needs?

This is the case in Milwaukee, where the Rent For Success Program has worked hard to ensure that every tenant in the city has access to basic information and education to enable successful renting, beneficial to both tenants and landlords. While this solution may meet the most needs, and serves a clear function to better enable the earlier two, it too has challenges. How does one implement such a program? Is it mandatory for all municipal renters? Despite these questions, education is an exciting opportunity for individual municipalities to develop unique, local programs that can iterate, evolve, and grow to have tangible impacts on both landlords and tenants.

Courts should also follow best practices in transforming eviction lawsuit notices — like their Complaint and Summons. See the Legal Design Lab’s redesigned eviction complaint made in conjunction with Hamilton County Courts in Ohio.

See redesigned court notice from the Legal Design Lab, in conjunction with Hamilton County Courts in Ohio

Next Steps for Tenants & Eviction Prevention

From this initial class project, our Lab is working on a larger research project to understand the key barriers that tenants and landlords have when it comes to accessing the justice system & services that can help them avoid evictions — and get to stable, safe housing.

This includes:

  • Our Legal Design Lab’s collaboration with the National League of Cities on the Landlord Engagement Lab, working with local governments across the US on engaging more mom-and-pop landlords in eviction prevention
  • Promoting the Lab & NLC toolkit for courts, government and legal aid to improve their community outreach & eviction help services
  • Research projects interviewing more tenants and landlords about their barriers to accessing justice and setting up stable, safe housing relationships
  • Ongoing work in the Eviction Prevention Learning Lab city cohort to create new interventions that can prevent evictions, and then evaluate their impact

Please write if your group is also working on eviction prevention or similar challenges — and what you have learned about people’s barriers to getting help and resolving their problems in safe, equitable, and just ways. What can we be doing better in our courts, legal aid groups, and rental assistance efforts — to better engage, activate, and empower people with housing problems?

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Current Projects Uncategorized

Legal Design Lab’s 2021 Year in Review

Margaret Hagan, Dec 22, 2021

Greetings from the Legal Design Lab! Our team has been busy throughout this year on both emergency projects and long-standing research & development work.

We wanted to say hello, send our holiday wishes, and give you a few updates on what we have been working on. Hope you had a great 2021, and that 2022 will be even better.

Our big themes — much like in past years — are

  1. Eviction prevention and, more broadly, access to justice innovation,
  2. Imagining new and more accessible Virtual Legal Systems, and
  3. Making a Better Legal Internet that can connect people to good legal help.

We’d like to share some of our work in 2021 on these themes!


Eviction Prevention policy lab classes

We have taught two rounds of our Policy Lab Justice by Design: Eviction, with the NAACP as our partner. Our team has worked with the NAACP on the service design, outreach, tech strategies, and court roundtables, for their innovative new Community Navigator and eviction diversion programs in South Carolina.

Eviction Prevention multi-city cohort

The Lab partnered with the National League of Cities to create a cross-USA cohort of city leaders who wanted to develop, pilot, and evaluate new models to prevent evictions in their jurisdiction. This work was motivated by recent research on the role of evictions in exacerbating families’ financial, health, educational, and security problems. Many cities were interested in trying new technologies, eviction diversion programs, mediation services, right to counsel in housing court, collaborative court arrangements, and data-driven outreach in order to get more resources and knowledge to people at risk of eviction.

The Lab and NLC recruited 5 cities, Richmond, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Grand Rapids, as part of the first cohort. We organized one in-person kickoff meeting in March 2020. Then all subsequent sessions were virtual. We ran learning sessions, gave technical assistance with program design and evaluation tools, connected cities with peer cities that had already rolled out similar programs, and facilitated city teams in the design and roll-out of new programs.

You can read our report on our initial 5-city Eviction Prevention cohort. At this website, you can also find more details on our work, and the outcomes that have resulted in each of the cities.

Based on the first pilot version with 5 cities, the Lab and NLC have now expanded to a 30-city cohort. Our new Eviction Prevention Learning Lab is an 18-month program that again coordinates cities committed to housing justice and eviction prevention, with best practices, technical assistance, and peer learning.

More about our expanded program is here: https://www.nlc.org/initiative/2021-eviction-prevention-learning-lab/ We are now working with many cities on effective implementation of rent relief programs, developing eviction diversion programs, and establishing court and government data collectives.

Eviction Innovations website

With the support of the Hewlett Foundation, our team has built a central website to gather best practices and case studies of eviction prevention services, technologies, and policies. We have used this website in our cohort and also shared it widely with policy-makers and service-providers as they develop new anti-eviction plans of action: https://evictioninnovation.org/

This website has had thousands of visitors, to learn about how to establish eviction diversion programs, court mediation, housing navigators, data collectives, record masking, and other key strategies to improve people’s outcomes when faced with an eviction.

Legal Help FAQ website on Emergency Eviction laws

Back in the middle of 2020, we launched a new website with the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, Legal FAQ: https://legalfaq.org. It has state-by-state legal information for what renters have during the pandemic, including eviction moratoria, rent relief, utility bill relief, and other special protections. It also has state-by-state resource links to legal, financial, and other social service help. Our team drafted all of the content for the site, and then assembled a network of legal aid lawyers across the country to check and improve our content.

We have approximately 800–1000 visitors per day, with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and 211 (among other providers) referring many users to us. This site connects people with local, actionable, plain language help if they are behind on rent or facing an eviction lawsuit.

Better Design of Court Documents

We launched our study with Cincinnati courts on a new court summons design. Could we get more tenants to come to their eviction hearing if the court summons was clearer, more action-oriented, and with stronger referrals to self-help and legal aid? We are gathering the data now.

We’re also working with several jurisdictions in Montana to develop their new summons design, to run a similar study to see whether we can reduce tenants’ default rate, and increase participation in the justice system.

Text Message reminder and hotline systems

We’ve also been building texting tools to help legal aid and tenant advocacy groups get services to tenants in need. Our Wise Messenger tool (developed by Metin Eskili) allows us to work with a court or legal aid group to set up automated text message channels to communicate with clients or litigants.

This includes developing a tenant’s rights hotline with the nonprofit group Tenants Together, signup for housing navigators, online legal aid intake with Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino and Legal Services of Northern Virginia, and court reminders. We are studying if we can improve people’s uptake of legal help resources and attendance of court hearings through text message channels.

Policy Leadership

In addition to our design and tech work, we have also been focused on policy by design to prevent evictions. Margaret has become the interim director of the ABA Task Force on Evictions, Housing Stability, and Equity. This diverse group of people from across the country is setting an agenda of legal reforms for eviction laws. We are also working on data standards, shared resources, and a shortlist of due process reforms to be made. Several student research assistants including KC Shah and Roda Nour have been working on the Task Force as well.

Our team has been presenting and facilitating workshops on the national stage on topics like eviction prevention & housing stability policy. This has included working with the White House, HUD, Department of Treasury, and other groups who are developing new strategies to mitigate the harms of eviction.


Nora has been leading the Virtual Legal Systems track! This has included classes, repositories, and new pilots of how online, hybrid, and ‘new normal’ courts may be after the many lessons learned during the early days of Covid.

New Spaces of Justice classes: She worked with the path-breaking designer Virgil Abloh and architect Oana Stanescu to create & launch two classes on this topic at MIT and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

These classes, Blueprints of Justice and New Spaces of Justice, included partnerships with Massachusetts and Utah court systems to understand what was happening as courts quickly transitioned to online services during Covid — and what opportunities exist to make a fairer, more dignified, more accessible online space for justice.

The classes paired law, architecture, and design students on teams to learn from court experts, architects, designers, and people with lived experience to set an agenda on human-centered online spaces of justice. Student teams proposed pilots to make online hearings more understandable, to bridge the tech divide for people who don’t have their own devices, to protect the privacy of vulnerable people, and other challenges.

The first pilots from the classes are rolling out and evaluations will be shared in the new year.

The Court Observation Hub: This new website is a starting point for groups who want to do online court watching. The Lab team of Nora, Marina DeFrates, Eli Shi, and Roda Nour, built the Court Observation Hub in order to track where you can access online courts & what existing court watch programs you might volunteer with.


Better Legal Internet has continued as one of our major themes. We’re working on a few tracks: setting up better, common tech infrastructure; building new tools; and spreading best practc.es

Legal Help Online Cohort: This year, we have been very excited to kick off the Legal Help Online Cohort. With the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, we have recruited and coordinated this national network of legal help website managers.

In the Cohort, we are developing standards, metrics & audit tools for the quality of their Content, Technology, Design, and Authority/SEO. Then we work through group meetings, technical assistance, and peer learning to help website owners improve in all 4 of these areas.

We will continue to work on this, including more dashboards, out-of-the-box tool kits, and resources in the coming years. We want to see every single jurisdiction in the US have a user-friendly, free-to-use website that can help them understand & get started with the most common legal problems.

Legal Help Infrastructure & taxonomies: When someone searches on Google, Yahoo, Reddit, or other places about a legal problem they’re having (help, I’m getting evicted — or, someone is calling me about a debt ), what do they see? Our work on internet infrastructure improvements can help more legal aid and court websites, with public interest information, to appear more prominently — and to have a higher quality technical and design experience to improve how people can use their online tools.

Our work here includes building a Schema.org markup tool that lets public interest websites improve how Google finds and presents their website to the public (https://schema.legallab.dev/), and a taxonomy of codes for all legal help problems people might have (https://taxonomy.legal/).

These ‘standards’ tools help make sure that various jurisdictions are encoding their online legal help information with standard terms, codes, and markup. This makes it easier for search engines to know how to present their information to the public, and it makes it easier to refer visitors across jurisdictions.

Legal Internet Steering Committee: Our group has also assembled a working group, the Legal Internet Steering Committee, which has 30 leaders across the world to review these infrastructure projects, suggest new ones, and work on more coordination of online legal help.


Let’s go!

What does 2022 hold for us?

We will continue working on our themes — but with a conscious turn to move away from our past 2 years’ “emergency focus” and back to our pre-Covid practices of more community interviews, pop-up user testing, hands-on workshops, and policy roundtables. We have many classes coming up in early 2022, including on:

  • How do we get courts to include more people with lived experience in their policy-making, as they create new eviction diversion programs, online courts, and post-pandemic improvements?
  • How can we make computable contracts that empower consumers, so they can understand and use the insurance contracts they have to wrestle with?
  • Can courts collaborate to develop & roll out tech infrastructure, that allows more non-profit and for-profit technology groups to develop SRL-friendly innovations?

We don’t know when we’ll be able to get back to fully in-person classes, design sessions, and convenings, but we can’t wait to see you all soon when it does happen!

Thank you so much for your interest and support in the Legal Design Lab! Please stay tuned for upcoming announcements about our work! And have a wonderful holiday season.

Categories
Current Projects

Lessons from the Pandemic on Keeping People Housed in a Crisis and Beyond

Margaret Hagan, Mar 30, 2021

Notes from a multi-city eviction prevention cohort

Our Stanford Legal Design Lab has spent the past several years working to develop new solutions to address the eviction crisis. We’ve been redesigning the documents that courts send out to tenants who are being sued for eviction. We’ve built new websites to help tenants know their rights and possible defenses to use in court. We’ve helped tenant advocacy groups create text message hotlines for people facing a housing crisis.

But in the middle of 2019, when we reflected on our work aiming to prevent evictions, we were struck by one major observation: Despite momentum by city leaders around the country to develop innovative solutions to the eviction crisis, most of this work was happening in city or regional bubbles. A county in Arizona, for example, may launch a new tenant help initiative, but leaders in Buffalo, Richmond, Minneapolis, or San Francisco wouldn’t know about it. Each city group had to figure out what the landscape of possible initiatives might be to respond to their local eviction crisis and then try to build, fund, and evaluate these initiatives, all on their own.

Envisioning a cross-country

What if city leaders working on local eviction prevention were talking to each other? What if they could share their program designs, evaluation results, data strategies, funding plans, community outreach, and legislation drafting? What if initiatives piloted in one area could be replicated in others, saving resources, speeding up implementation, and achieving larger impact?

These were the driving ideas between our Lab’s initial discussions in 2019 with the National League of Cities. We had read about coordinated cohorts working on new policy initiatives like basic income programs. We thought that we might be able to build from this cohort model by working with a group like NLC that has a strong network of local leaders and aligned public interest priorities. We began to discuss how we might bring together a cohort of cities to work on eviction prevention in a coordinated way. Rather than focusing only on developing individual interventions in single locations, we wanted to see if we could drive a more scaled-up and strategic network of change-makers.

Now, at the conclusion of our first Eviction Prevention Cohort, we have seen the many policy, service, and technology innovations that have emerged in 2020. Many of these initiatives were spurred by the growing eviction crisis related to the COVID-19 emergency, but they also leveraged past years’ work by local task forces, government agencies, and civil society. (Read the full report about the cohort here.)

So, what have we learned about how evictions might be prevented? And what are the best practices to help tenants gain stable housing? In our discussions with local leaders, we’ve gleaned insights about effective eviction programs.

Our goal now is to amplify what we have learned to help cities and communities across the country improve programs that will help ensure stable housing for residents who are most at risk of eviction.

From Emergency Interventions to Permanent Programs

The pandemic catalyzed many emergency initiatives to address housing instability. Cities and communities stood up new rental assistance programs, passed temporary laws, implemented new policies, and built partnerships between providers both within and outside local governments. The emergency pushed action to address tenants’ needs so that many who otherwise would face eviction for unpaid rent were able to stay in their homes.

But how these programs will continue into 2021 is an open question. Cities and local governments do not typically have long-term resources or funding to continue offering robust rental assistance, mediation and diversion programs, or other emergency initiatives. How can communities fund and staff these and other new programs?

Securing sustainable funding is primary to ensure that cities are able to maintain the innovative interventions of the pandemic era. Along with securing sustainable funding are many lessons from these new initiatives to better serve renters, landlords, and broader communities. The Stanford-NLC 2020 Cohort surfaced key metrics that cities should aim toward:

  1. Speed of Service: How quickly do renters receive responses after they apply for rental aid or eviction diversion programs? How quickly can a rental payment be calculated and then given to the person in need?
  2. Ease of Use: How easy is it for a tenant or landlord to find a service or program, or to learn about a law or policy? Are these laws, policies, and programs easy to comprehend? And once a tenant or landlord knows of them, how easy is it to apply, hear back, and follow through?
  3. Coordination of the Local Network: Do the community organizations, legal aid providers, government agencies, and courts have coordinated systems, at least from the point of view of the citizens? Are there warm and clear hand-offs between the different organizations? Are there streamlined programs with a single point of entry, or are programs dispersed, siloed, and disconnected from each other?
  4. Ideally, 2021 will see both funding and improvements to the new range of eviction prevention programs serving communities nationwide.

The Eviction Diversion Model Ramps Up — and May Be Improved

Eviction diversion or prevention pilot programs have become more common in the past several years. With the pandemic, many more regions launched eviction diversion programs of their own — and quickly. The eviction diversion model generally follows the following pathway:

  1. When a landlord files an eviction lawsuit against a tenant, either party can sign up to participate in an eviction diversion program (and the other must agree).
  2. The court or legal services agency hosts the program. Once the parties agree to participate, then they process their application to confirm they’re eligible.
  3. The diversion program staff helps the landlord and tenant through a mediation session to agree on a payment plan and possible other terms in a settlement agreement that will let the tenant stay in the home.
  4. The diversion program connects the tenant to other social services that might help them with their financial, employment, schooling, health, and housing situations.
  5. The landlord receives funds from the program to compensate for some or all of the unpaid rent.
  6. The court case is dropped, meaning that there is no official eviction judgment against the tenant in the court records. This prevention of a judgment may benefit the tenant down the road in credit reports, tenant screening, and other risk assessments.
  7. The tenant is allowed to stay in the home as long as the terms of the payment plan and agreement are met.
  8. Ideally, the tenant’s financial situation improves and they are able to continue living in the home, the landlord maintains the property, and the relationship follows the rules set out in the lease. Alternatively, the tenant is given more time to make plans to move to a new, more affordable home.

Cities across the country are beginning these programs in order to prevent eviction judgments, keep people in their homes, and repair tenant-landlord relationships. Some discussions from our cohort also point to ways that this basic model can be improved, made more effective, see greater participation, and achieve better outcomes, including:

  • Earlier Intervention. Diversion programs may produce better outcomes if they are available before landlords file lawsuits in court. What if tenants and landlords were eligible for the mediation, rental assistance, and other services at the point when their problems begin to escalate? If the diversion program is available to them around the time of the ‘warning notice’ (sometimes called Notice to Pay or Quit), then they could receive services before a lawsuit is filed. This would save landlords the costs of filing and hiring a lawyer. It would free up court dockets. And it would protect tenants from having a court action against them that may impact their future housing opportunities.
  • Navigators for the unrepresented parties. Even with a diversion program in place, tenants and landlords without lawyers may have trouble navigating the program, the court process, and the other available services. Having ‘legal navigators’ can help tenants and landlords stay on track during the process and give them a sense of control and empowerment so that they may take full advantage of the services offered.
  • Court rule changes to accompany new services. States like Michigan not only implemented eviction diversion programs but also worked with courts to change the procedural rules to encourage more mediation between landlords and tenants. By requiring the parties to explore possible settlements before going to an eviction trial, the court can encourage and oversee more mutually beneficial, out-of-court settlements that can prevent eviction judgments against tenants and help landlords receive compensation.
  • Community outreach — especially to landlords. How can we make more tenants and landlords aware of eviction diversion programs? Ideally, people would be aware of the program before their lawsuit, or early in the process. They’d know how it works, whether they’re eligible for it, and how it might benefit them. Right now, many programs use fliers to advertise. How can communities enhance their outreach efforts through online sources, in community hubs, and through trusted networks?
  • Outreach to landlords and property managers is particularly important. This is the case for eviction diversion programs, as well as for other initiatives such as landlord academies (like Rent Ready Norfolk) and rental assistance programs. These programs rely on landlord participation and agreement. If there is not effective outreach to explain existing supports and the importance of preventing evictions, programs may underperform because landlords — like tenants — are not fully informed and do not buy-in.
A constant question that emerged in our design work: reaching out to and gaining the trust of landlords

Conclusion

Cities and public interest organizations may deploy a wide range of initiatives to help prevent evictions. We are cataloging profiles of such initiatives on the Eviction Innovations site. We have also documented many details in a recent paper, Approaches to Eviction Prevention (July 2020), which describes new policies, technologies, and services that might improve outcomes.

Now there is a need for ongoing implementation and evaluation of these new initiatives. The emergency period drove many new policy and service innovations. It also meant that resources were diverted away from larger movements toward Right to Counsel or systemic reform of the eviction system. In 2021, even as some of the eviction protections expire, there is increasing awareness of the importance of housing stability — and how interlinked it is with public health and children’s ability to thrive.

2021 should be a year of maintaining momentum in programs that reduce the number of people facing eviction lawsuits; it should be a year of increasing the financial and legal assistance available to resolve landlord-tenant problems; and it should be a year to identify systemic reforms to keep people in affordable, stable housing. The emergency of 2020 has shown how quickly new protections and services can be stood up. Now we need to do more research to refine and improve approaches to building more meaningful and long-term solutions to America’s housing crisis.

Read the Eviction Prevention Cohort Report

Learn more about the 2020 Eviction Prevention Cohort and explore key findings from the report, The Eviction Prevention Cohort: Highlights from the Five-City Pilot.

This article was originally published on the National League of Cities blog at https://www.nlc.org/article/2021/02/01/lessons-from-the-pandemic-on-keeping-people-housed-in-a-crisis-and-beyond/.

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Court Observation Hub

Nóra Al Haider, Oct 21, 2021

“Please wait for the host to start this meeting”

Nowadays, in many jurisdictions, litigants can opt to use Zoom to access their hearing. This is one of the many effects that the pandemic had on the legal system. Webex, Teams and Zoom are starting to feel like a regular part of courts.

Virtual courts. Illustration by Nóra Al Haider

As with all new developments this change poses opportunities and challenges that we will delve into in future publications. Online courts have not only affected how ‘regular’ stakeholders, such as litigants, judges, court clerks and lawyers, navigate the legal system. Easy access to hearings also means that anyone with an interest in a case can easily Zoom in as a court watcher. Community members, journalists, activists and advocates do not have to take time out of their day to drive to a courthouse, stand in line, go through security to then finally be able to attend a hearing. Nowadays most hearings are just a click away for those who are interested.

Online courts increased the amount of court observation groups around the country. In essence, court observation groups are community driven clubs that structurally observe hearings in their jurisdiction. These groups do not only draw attention to individual cases, but can also, due to the sheer number of observers, detect structural problems in the system. This development is incredibly interesting. The increased interest in court observation groups will be an opportunity for academics and non-profits to work together with community partners to unearth and gather more data about structural issues in the legal system.

The development of court observation groups has been cheered on by many people, including non-legal professionals. The singer Fiona Apple used the Grammys to bring more attention to virtual courts and encouraged people to join their local court watch groups:

Chief Justice McCormack has stated several times that court livestreams increase transparency:

This increase in attention for court watchers and the ease of accessibility boosted the interest of many individuals to join an observation group. To facilitate this process, we developed the Court Observation Hub at the Legal Design Lab. This hub provides an overview of links to online proceedings and court watch groups in different jurisdictions.

https://virtuallegal.systems/observation/

The hub also gives an overview of tools on how to set up court watch groups. Hopefully, in the future we’ll be able to expand this website with measurement instruments that are free to use by community court watchers. It could have a monumental impact on the legal system if community groups are able to systematically collect and share information. This development could trigger positive policy changes, increase transparency in the legal system and strengthen the rule of law.

Visit the Court Observation Hub at https://virtuallegal.systems/observation/

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How do we assess whether a pilot increases Access to Justice?

Rachel Wang, Oct 12, 2021

A spotlight on Hugh McDonald’s law review piece “Assessing A2J”

Hugh McDonald published Assessing Access to Justice: How Much ‘Legal’ Do People Need and How Can We Know? in the UC Irvine Law Review earlier this year.The article helps us operationalize two terms that we use in legal design & policymaking: access to justice and legal capability.

It’s a useful read for those working on legal design, tech, and research efforts to make the justice system more equitable and human-centered. I have summarized some of the key points here — and encourage you to read the whole article.

If we can improve legal capability, then we can increase access to justice. Drawing by Margaret Hagan

‘Access to Justice’ is the goal of much of our work in legal reform and design. In practice, access to justice would exist if a person is able to use the legal system to resolve their problems around family, home, work, housing, money, and personal security.

There would be ‘access to justice’ if a person knows the legal system exists, if they’re able to understand how to use it, and they’re able to use it without high burdens, costs, or other barriers. It would be procedurally just (transparent, straightforward, and respectful) and substantively just (producing a fair outcome for the problem or dispute).

Most of our work focuses on increasing access to justice — and dealing with all the barriers to it. Why aren’t people able to use the legal system to solve their problems? And how do we make it easier to know about it and use it?

This is where the notion of Legal Capability is so key to Access to Justice efforts.

McDonald defines the term ‘Legal Capability’ as the personal characteristics or competencies required to effectively and purposefully function in the legal sphere, including purposeful use of law and legal institutions. It encapsulates the ability to perceive potentially justiciable issues, access or obtain appropriate legal information and assistance, apply the law to their circumstances, assess available options, and take appropriate steps to assert and defend rights.

What does Legal Capability look like?

Following this, Pleasence, Balmer, and others have established a way to operationalize legal capability along a few ability markers. If someone has Legal Capability, then they should be able to perform these actions:

  1. Issue-Spotting: the ability to ‘perceive and characterize’ the legal,
  2. Help-Seeking: the ability to ‘seek and obtain appropriate help or assistance,’ and
  3. Help-Using: the ability to apply and use help or assistance.

What makes a person have Legal Capability?

To actually accomplish these legal capability tasks, McDonald goes through the literature to find the concrete factors that go into whether a person can or cannot do them. These Legal Capability factors include:

  • Knowledge, about the law, rights, obligations, assistance, information, and processes,
  • Skills, like around recognition of issues, “information literacy,” “communication,” decision-making, problem-solving, and “digital literacy”,
  • Behavioral attributes, including “self-awareness,” “persistence,” “confidence,” and “attitudes”, and
  • Resources, including money, time, social capital, availability of services, and simple processes.

Researchers can be measuring legal capability as a part of measuring access to justice. This could be before & after a new intervention. Does your policy, tech, or design increase people’s legal capability? Does it make them more knowledgeable, skillful, confident, or resourceful?

What are the data sources we can use to define the state of Access to Justice?

In the article, McDonald highlights 3 main sources of empirical information to assess whether access to justice exists in a jurisdiction, and to what degree.

These 3 are legal needs surveys, administrative and operational justice system data, and evaluative studies.

Legal needs surveys evaluate the public understanding of law and legal needs, while investigating knowledge, attitudes, experiences, and handling of justiciable problems from the bottom-up perspective of those who face them, rather than from the top-down perspective of justice system professionals and institutions.

Administrative and Operational justice system data encompass the wide range of information about justice institutions, operations, and users. For example, legal matter type, party type, level of legal assistance, legal representation status, number of pending matters, filing fees received and waived, staffing, use of interpreters, matter duration, case backlogs, adjournments, mediations, finalizations, file integrity, disposal method and stage, matter outcome, final orders, and expenditure are some measures that may be available from justice system administrative and operational data.

Lastly, evaluative studies examine what ‘works,’ of course keeping in mind that defining desired outcomes is an inherently political task and that views as to ‘success’ are likely to be contested.

In all three of these empirical sources, McDonald highlights that research can look at outcomes recorded in these data sources, across several domains. These can help us get a better profile of whether legal capability and access to justice exist:

  • Outcomes for the client (e.g., impact on clients’ legal matters, impact on broader client outcomes, impact on client experiences, etc.)
  • Outcomes for the program (e.g., impact on service appropriateness, etc.)
  • Organizational outcomes (e.g., impact on sustainability and cost, etc.)
  • Outcomes for systems (e.g., impact on justice system operations, effectiveness, and efficiency etc.).
  • We need to be tracking down what’s happening in these four different outcome areas, using a creative mix of data. Even if Legal Needs Surveys are the most established source, we as a research community can dive into the other two.

A2J Research and Design needs

McDonald calls out a short list of things that we can be working on, in the access to justice community. This includes things for researchers, practitioners, designers, and technologists.

  • Measurement of new interventions’ impact: More effective measures of the impact of advice and the cost/benefit of services
  • Defining ‘what works’: More evaluative information to identify ‘what works’ in respect of policy responses in the field of civil justice and how legal need can better be addressed through policy interventions
  • How people actually deal with legal/life problems: More specific information relating to the problem-solving behavior of individuals
  • New designs to communicate complex legal info: Understanding of how information can be effectively communicated to those with civil justice problems
  • New designs to brand/communicate legal help: Effective ways to communicate “the value of seeking legal help”
  • Different designs for different audience demographics: Data on what options to address access to justice needs are acceptable for different client groups

What can A2J Researchers be working on?

Given this, McDonald suggests options worth further research and development:

  • Development of legal capability indicators. Such indicators might be based on a combination of sociodemographic measures but must be able to be easily deployed in operational and frontline service contexts.
  • Improved ability to capture legal matter and user complexity. This metric is particularly important for gauging the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of different legal assistance service models.
  • Additional demographic measures of justice institution users. More information about what types of people do, and do not, make use of formal dispute resolution processes is needed to routinely monitor and gauge their use.
  • Follow-up methods and measures to gauge user experience and outcomes. In many other sectors it is now common to routinely follow-up on service provision to find out about users’ experiences and outcomes. Routine following of unbundled legal assistance service could help determine, for example, if the service met user needs, was helpful, and why or why not. This action would be one way to learn more about user experience and outcomes and could also potentially improve data concerning factors affecting user ability to make effective use of unbundled legal assistance services. Concern about burdens of additional data collection could be mitigated by randomly following up with a small proportion of users. The cost of not doing so includes the provision of unbundled legal assistance that, at best, risks potentially providing services that are inappropriate and ill-matched to user legal need and capability, and thus potentially waste scarce resources, and at worst, undermine access to justice, confidence in the justice system, and rule of law.

Surveys and Scales to use in A2J research

McDonald offers several existing surveys and scales from which to draw inspiration for future instruments: