BYU law lab creates TurboTax-like program to help debtors

    BYU law lab creates TurboTax-like program to help debtors (Fire photo: KUTV)

    (KUTV) — A group at Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School created a TurboTax-like program that allows people who are in a debt collection lawsuit to defend themselves without needing to hire an attorney.

    The free online tool, called SoloSuit, is the first product of the LawX legal design lab team.

    “This is the most substantial accomplishment of any legal design lab in the nation by a large margin,” said Kimball Parker, a co-founder of LawX who teaches the course.

    The class began in autumn with the goal of making the law easier to navigate for people who have no legal experience.

    BYU alumnus teamed up with the design lab to create the software. The lab coordinated with designers at IBM in order to learn about design thinking, which led to the creation of paper prototypes to test SoloSuit's design and language.

    In order to collect statistics about the issue, the students spoke with thirty debtors about their experiences in debt collection lawsuits.

    According to Parker, their research showed that 87 percent of people who default by not responding to a lawsuit are in debt collection, and that 65 percent of all case filings are for debt collection.

    Debt collectors in Utah have filed more than 330,000 lawsuits in the past five years.

    Each year, between 65 to 80 percent of the defendants did not respond, which means they automatically lost their cases — even if they are not the ones who owe money, or the statute of limitations has passed.

    They also found that more than 98 percent of people who were sued for debt collection did not hire an attorney.

    The students expressed shock upon learning how many people were being sued.

    “There are thousands of cases filed for under $100,” Parker said. “There are tens of thousands a year that are under $200. We found cases for $10. There are hundreds and hundreds of cases below $50. It’s astonishing.”

    A defendant will automatically lose the lawsuit if a response is not given within 21 days.

    The students met with debtors to learn why they so frequently did not respond. They learned that debtors often did not know how to file a response. For many people, the process of responding to a lawsuit for a small amount was simply not worth it.

    “Even if you knew the rules and knew there were rules and you found them, you wouldn’t know how to respond,” Parker said.

    The summons do not tell people how they can or should respond, nor do they inform the recipient that they will need to mail or bring a copy of their response both to the lawyer suing them and to the court. A number of debtors believed the lawyer listed on the information was their own lawyer, when in reality it was the lawyer suing them.

    Defendants cannot e-file responses, and only one of the thirty debtors interviewed even owned a printer.

    The students discovered another rule, which states that a defendant can be given the lawsuit before it is filed with the court — meaning the defendant would not know their own case number. In some instances, defendants had mailed responses to the court which were thrown away because a case number did not exist yet.

    “This system in incredibly hostile towards debtors, I’m embarrassed,” Parker said. “I’m embarrassed our state has these laws in place.”

    The LawX group believes SoloSuit will make a positive difference.

    “The immediate, desired effect is people who couldn’t before would now be able to engage with the legal system in a way that yields a better outcome for them in their specific circumstances,” said Nick Hafen, a law student who was in the LawX course.

    SoloSuit guides defendants through how to create a response to a lawsuit and drafts it for them. Users are asked questions in terms that are easy to understand, and their responses are used in a response filled with legal jargon. SoloSuit will remind the user to mail their responses and that they must file initial disclosures.

    Although the students hope the software can help defendants in Utah, SoloSuit is already receiving interest from other states. Alaska is set to use the program in a pilot later in 2018, and a nonprofit in Arizona also plans to use SoloSuit.

    “We would love for anybody and everybody to use this software,” Parker said.

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