The Call to Action report and recommendations included specific recommendations for high-volume dockets, recognizing the percentage of the state court docket, high number of self-represented litigants, and seriousness and long-lasting consequences of these cases. Together with the NCSC, IAALS has focused in on recommendations for reform in consumer debt cases.
These cases pose tremendous challenges to state courts due not only to their high volume, but also to the distinctive characteristics of defendants, who are overwhelming unrepresented, often intimidated by court procedures, and uninformed about their substantive rights or how to assert them court. IAALS and the NCSC’s white paper on consumer debt collection was developed to provide guidance to state court policymakers on managing these cases given the growing caseload and recognition of existing gaps in effective case management in our courts.
The pandemic has sped up the adoption of a number of the recommendations for high-volume cases, including remote hearings and limiting circumstances in the courthouse that tend to intimidate self-represented persons or create confusion about the roles of the court and counsel. In other ways the pandemic has created new barriers. Courts have traditionally relied on foot traffic in the courthouse—offering self-help, information, and resources in the physical building. Now, courts must find new ways to educate the public about the constantly changing procedures and resources. Courts must also address times when litigants lack access to wi-fi or to electronic devices for remote appearances. Overcoming these new barriers to access and justice is of paramount importance.
In February 2020, IAALS and the NCSC published a white paper on consumer debt collection, Preventing Whack-a-Mole Management of Debt Cases: A Proposal for a Coherent and Comprehensive Approach for State Courts. It provides guidance for state court policymakers on managing different types of debt collection cases, and describes problems associated with consumer debt collection cases and the impact of promising reforms implemented in New York and elsewhere. The paper then proposes that such reforms be expanded to apply to all types of consumer debt collection cases and to prevent problems at each stage of litigation, including post-judgment proceedings.
In March 2020, CCJ and COSCA established a Rapid Response Team (RRT) to provide guidance to state courts through the COVID-19 national emergency. The RRT working groups issued guidance and recommendations both for what can be done during the pandemic to ensure access and how to resume court operations beyond the pandemic. As part of the civil working group, IAALS helped created guidance for state courts in managing consumer debt actions—Key Steps and Tools to Implement Now to Ensure the Fair and Efficient Handling of Consumer Debt Actions.