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Can a Nonprofit Startup Fix the Pro Se Problem in Bankruptcy?

posted by Dalié Jiménez

For the past four years, Jim Greiner, Lois Lupica, and I have been working on the Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP)*, a large randomized control trial trying to find out what works to help individuals in financial distress. As part of the project, a large number (70+ at last count) of student volunteers have created self-help materials aimed at these individuals, using the latest learnings in adult education, psychology, public health, and more. Part of our work has focused on creating a set of materials to help pro se filers through a no asset Chapter 7 bankruptcy (I blogged about the student loan AP materials here).

Our larger project aims to commoditize large parts of self-help bankruptcy and other legal matters (representing oneself in a debt collection lawsuit, for example). Our theory is that there large parts of law where this can be done, and where a combination of self-help materials and limited representation (or some other assistance) might help us solve the civil justice access crisis that permeates much of our legal system. Bankruptcy may not seem to face such an access crisis (yet?), but we know that many insolvent debtors do not file despite it being in their best interests. Thanks to Katie Porter and Ronald Mann's work, we also know that many people who file do so only after saving up for years (for both for the filing fee and the attorney). As many as one of every nine bankruptcy cases is filed without a lawyer, although debtors do so seemingly at their peril. Angela Littwin has shown that pro se debtors are significantly more likely to have their case dismissed. Which is all to say that perhaps we do have an access problem in bankruptcy after all.

The FDRP is a slow, longitudinal research project. It will be many years before we'll know the effect of our materials. But, a very cool thing happened during all the planning, fundraising, and article writing of the past four years: a couple of amazing entrepreneurs heard about the project and were inspired to test our theories.

This summer, Rohan Pavuluri and Jonathan Petts launched UpSolve, a nonprofit startup working to "modernize legal aid." In their own words:

We're using technology to empower low-income Americans to get back on their feet and stay there. We aim to scale the academic research of our advisers, who launched the landmark Financial Distress Research Project. Our first task: making bankruptcy help simple, fast, and free.

Rohan and Jonathan using some of the materials we created for the FDRP (including the cartoons) and are in testing phase right now. The current version looks something like a simplified version of TurboTax if TurboTax had cartoons and self-affirmation exercises. They welcome the help of the bankruptcy bar in making their product even better. If you're interested in helping (testing, funding, or otherwise!), contact jonathan@upsolve.org.

 

* The FDRP was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, award number 1423729

Comments

Hello. I am a professor who writes and blogs regularly on the student loan crisis and bankruptcy. I recently communicated with two people who successfully discharged their student loans in bankruptcy. Both represented themselves.
I believe a lot of people would have a decent shot at discharging their student loans in bankruptcy if they only had a few basic tools to help them draft their adversary action complaints and their trial briefs. I would be glad to help develop materials for this purpose. You may contact me at rfossey@louisiana.edu

This work is extremely important and necessary. The Bankruptcy Rules Committee work on the new filing forms had as a central and controversial tenet the goal of making the forms more accessible to the pro se filer.
A related and also important question is whether there is something between pro se and full scale representation by traditional counsel. In many areas of the country bankruptcy preparers and attorneys who work with them have come under fierce criticism. This may or may not always be justified but the often ignored question is whether, for the person for whom pro se is not practical and who does not have the dollars for the fee of a traditional attorney, is there a lower fee for less representation that should have a lawful role. We at Saint Louis U Law School are considering a conference on this topic. Are others aware of conferences on this topic?
thanks

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