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How Tech, Court Teamed Up to Fight Evictions Via Smartphone

In legal matters like eviction appeals, people often defend themselves. But this can be a confusing process for a layperson. A technology lab and court collaboration brings a new tool aimed at making the process more accessible.

Bryce Willey sitting and talking during an eCourts panel.
Left to right: Paul Tuttle, Bryce Willey and Quinten Steenhuis talk during a Dec. 5 eCourts panel.
Jule Pattison-Gordon
Massachusetts tenants facing eviction orders are often presented with a daunting task when trying to navigate the appeals process, explained Paul Tuttle, assistant clerk at the Massachusetts Appeals Court, who spoke during the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) eCourts conference.

Pandemic-era court closures only added to the struggle and sent him searching for a fix. A collaboration with Suffolk University’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab led to a digital, guided interview tool for defendants who are facing eviction within the next 48 hours. The result, Tuttle said, is a simpler and quicker experience for defendants, and clerks receiving more accurate information.


“A BLANK PIECE OF PAPER”


Ninety percent of defendants in eviction cases represent themselves, Tuttle said, and, pre-pandemic, those whose motions were denied in housing court had to go to Boston to appeal — regardless of where in the state they lived — or file online. If they wanted help understanding what kind of information to submit when e-filing, defendants had to come to the clerk’s office in Boston. Another challenge? The clinic helping defendants was only open on Wednesdays, for two hours.

When defendants were outside the clinic’s hours, clerks “essentially … had to give the litigants a yellow legal pad and tell them that they needed to file a motion, and roughly what type of information needs to be in that motion,” Tuttle said. “But really, they were faced with just a blank piece of paper.”

This led to confusions and mistakes. Clerks sometimes received forms with off-topic explanations from defendants confused about what was being asked of them. Fee waiver applications accompanying eviction stay requests might be missing checkmarks or signatures that tenants then had to return to complete.

When the pandemic hit, Tuttle tested a variety of off-the-shelf digital forms in hopes of smoothing the process, before teaming up with the Suffolk lab for a custom offering.

Their collaboration led to a guided interview tool that helps self-represented litigants go step by step through eviction appeals petitions and several other legal filings, with explanations provided. The team continues to iterate on the project, updating features, adding availability in new languages and adding other legal procedures.

A GUIDED TOOL


The tool has been a gamechanger for both litigants and clerks, Tuttle said.

Thanks to the guidance the tool gives, clerks receive more relevant and complete information from litigants. Plus, clerks receiving paper forms need to type up details by hand, but e-filings flow more easily into court systems, saving about 20 data entry steps per filing.

In turn, the tool spares self-represented defendants from having to decipher legal nuances and idiosyncrasies, explained Quinten Steenhuis and Bryce Willey, who are both clinical fellows at the Technology Lab. For example, the team also introduced the e-filing tool in Illinois, where people filing without attorneys must list a specific six-digit code that varies by county; the digital tool can find and plug in the code for them.

The tool also gives users rapid access to judicial services. In one instance, a defendant was mid-eviction when she pulled out her smartphone to file a motion of appeal. Her approval came in soon after, while the constable was in the middle of removing her property from the premises, Tuttle recalled.

“The eviction started at 9:30 in the morning,” he said. “We got the motion at about 9:45 a.m., and by 10 o’clock there was a judicial order to stop the eviction, so the constable had to move what [furniture] he’d gotten in the truck back into the house and the case was stayed, because there was a problem with how eviction happened in trial court ... there’s just no way she could’ve filed that motion without the guided interview tool. “
Paul Tuttle, Bryce Willey and Quinten Steenhuis talk during a Dec. 5 eCourts panel.
Left to right: Paul Tuttle, Bryce Willey and Quinten Steenhuis talk during a Dec. 5 eCourts panel.
Jule Pattison-Gordon

ACCESSIBLE DESIGN


To make the tool widely useful, the team needed accessibility features. That included designing for those with vision limitations and putting the information in terms accessible to a fourth to sixth grade reading level, Steenhuis said. Features designed to make tools inclusive to people with particular needs also frequently end up benefiting the majority of users, Willey noted.

Plus, they decided the tool should guide litigants all the way through the process — including having a “one click” process to submit the form to court. Too many offerings fall short by supporting users through one part but then abandoning them to figure out the final steps on their own, Steenhuis said.

Given today’s cybersecurity climate, limiting data retention was also important. Willey said they automatically delete data after 30 days if users don’t re-engage with the tool, meaning there’s less information that hackers could potentially steal.


A screenshot of a sample page in the eviction tool.
An example step from the eviction tool, presented during the panel.
A screenshot of an example step from the eviction tool.
An example step from the eviction tool, presented during the panel.

A SOFTWARE MINDSET


A good-enough but available tool is more helpful to tenants than a polished one that releases after they’ve been evicted, speakers said. That meant getting over courts’ usual reluctance to release anything but a highly polished product, Tuttle said.

Instead, the Suffolk team pushed an iterative approach. They identified what, ideally, they’d like the tool to look like, but decided to release a version of the product once they had something better than the status quo — i.e., better than a PDF or printed form to fill out at home, Steenhuis said.

Once that early version was available and helping people, the team could then dig into adding and testing improvements, like user experience tweaks.

Bringing together the judicial and software world was important for another reason too: Courts need to stay neutral and avoid giving advice to any party. The collaboration let court representatives stay firmly on the side of providing legal expertise, while leaving their tech lab partners to host the software and decide what content to use.

“We can objectively say, ‘What I’m trying to be is helpful,’ which is something that’s a little bit trickier sometimes for the court to do,” Steenhuis said.

The team is two years into the project, and the Lab expects to be able to maintain the offering in part by having students work on it as part of their coursework.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.