A proposal for new eviction summons, complaint, and notice design
by Sabina Beleuz-Neagu, Trillium Chang, Ahmi Dhuna, Elizabeth Ford, and Juanjo Martinez Layuno
1. The Eviction Context
Our team of Stanford graduate and undergraduate students collectively interviewed 10 tenants who have experienced eviction. The feedback we received had a common theme: the eviction process is fast, difficult to navigate, and securing legal representation is expensive. Tenants are faced with the decision to either leave their home at the first sign of trouble, even if they are not at fault, or to try to navigate the system on their own. For those who do enter the court process, 90% of tenants facing eviction in California do not have representation from an attorney.
Self-represented litigants are the reality in California, but the system is not designed to accommodate this reality. When a landlord files their complaint with the court, a tenant has 5 business days to file an answer, which means finding the proper answer form, UD-105, understanding the legalistic language and filling it out correctly, delivering it to the court during business hours, and paying the per-defendant filing fee. If a tenant fails to file to file properly, there is an automatic default judgment against them and they are evicted. Under these circumstances, it makes sense that 40% of cases filed in California end in these automatic defaults.
Eviction has grave consequences. We see the unlawful detainer answer process as our leverage point for change. We want to make sure tenants are able to quickly, accurately, and independently fill out the information they need to get a court date and fight their eviction in front of a judge.
2. The Unlawful Detainer Complaint as an Unfair Five-Day Journey
Consider a tenant named Gloria, who as many Californians, works an 8-hour shift. She is summoned at 7 am on Monday, just before leaving for work. She looks at the documents after coming home in the evening, but finding answers becomes burdensome. Suddenly asking for permission from an employer to visit the court self-help center would stigmatize her as “evicted”, but making it to court is challenging due to her schedule.
On the second day, after navigating through irrelevant online searches, she finds a site that seems to be official. Gloria locates the UD-105 Form online and manages to go to court the following Monday, the last day to file the answer. Nevertheless, despite her efforts, Gloria fails to file an answer after realizing there is a fee associated.
In the tenant’s experience, the eviction process starts with an “Unlawful Detainer (UD) Packet” that today in California is comprised of a jargon-packed Summons and Complaint form. The UD-105 Answer Form required to fill out a response, surprisingly, does not come included. Hence, the Re[Form] team pondered whether including the UD-105 Answer form in the UD Packet would be sufficient to induce significant change in tenant response rates to evictions. Staff from the Self-Help Center of Santa Clara mentioned that in divorce processes people receive the answer form, but they get to the Self-Help center without realizing they have it. Thus, Team Re[Form] aims to redesign the form to improve the UD response filing experience.
3. Our Pilot Proposal
Our near-future proposal consists of drafting an “Info Sheet” to assist people in understanding how to fill out the UD-105 answer form and to get a better sense of the eviction process and timeline. Similar info sheets are used in California for family law, and when we brought up this idea with a member of the Judicial Council of California’s Forms Committee, they seemed open to the idea of us drafting an info sheet for the UD-105. Options for where this info sheet would be appended range from either appending it to the eviction summons (which would allow for early intervention but require policy change to mandate this), to the court-sent resource sheet, or to the UD-105 form.
Next step: design multiple versions of UD Info Sheet based on family law exemplars, and prototype effectiveness with tenants prior to submission to the Judicial Council of California’s Forms Committee.
Our short-term proposal includes rewriting the unlawful detainer answer form in plain language. It is important to note that the main answer form used in California—the form provided by the Judicial Council of California—is entirely optional. Technically, tenants can just submit an “Answer” in almost any form, as long as they include their basic personal information and plead their affirmative defenses. Anecdotally, however, it appears that clerks have rejected non-conforming Answers. To leverage this grey-area of local court rules, we propose to work with local clerks, stakeholders, and court self-help centers to develop a “bare-minimum” Answer written in plain English that will be accepted by court clerks. This revamped Answer will help tenants easily and effectively file their Answers within the 5-day window. We plan to distribute this Answer form through self-help centers, legal aid organizations. And we hope that the JCC will ultimately adopt the form as the gold standard through rulemaking.
Next step: reach out to Santa Clara County clerk supervisors to understand what constitutes a “bare minimum” form
Our long-term proposal consists of reaching out to key stakeholders at the state level to advocate for systematic change. These systematic changes would include waiving all court fees for tenants, requiring courts to accept answer forms online and by mail, tracking evictions by county, including the answer form as a part of the UD packet, simplifying all UD forms, and requiring that clerks accept bare minimum answer forms from tenants. Based on our interviews with tenants, lessening the barriers to answer to an eviction could have a massive impact on the currently dismally low response rate. As partners in this long-term proposal, we are hoping to reach out to two members of the governor’s cabinet who work on housing issues, and also the CA Housing Finance Agency and the Housing and Community Development Department.
As advisors in the policymaking space, we will recruit both Justin Cohan Shapiro, a Stanford graduate working as a senior advisor, and Professor Joe Nation, a current professor in Public Policy and past CA Assemblyman.
Next step: assemble policy proposal to present to advisors
Interested in joining our team, advising us, or providing feedback?
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