At the start of the fall semester, attorney Kimball Parker began a new class with nine Brigham Young University law students and a lofty goal: Find an area of law that is difficult for people to navigate and provide a solution.
Parker and the students who were enrolled in the LawX course gathered data from the state courts and quickly decided they would tackle the issue of debt-collection lawsuits.
The class learned that debt collectors in the past five years had filed more than 330,000 lawsuits against Utahns. More than 98 percent of those sued don’t hire an attorney. And in some years, over 80 percent of those sued did not respond, causing them to automatically lose their cases.
“We basically stumbled upon the biggest problem in the law in Utah today,” Parker said.
They found that thousands of lawsuits are filed in Utah every year with collection amounts under $100. Tens of thousands of cases were for $200 or less. And many were for as little as $10 — an amount that quickly inflated to hundreds of dollars owed by the debtor once attorney fees were added.
The students set a goal to lower the nonresponse rate in debt-collection suits. This would allow those who are sued to file an answer to the lawsuit within the required time frame — and without having to hire a lawyer. Debtors then could be connected with other resources that would help them move forward with their cases.
That led to the creation of SoloSuit, a free online tool whose users answer simple questions about their cases, similar to tax preparation software. Those answers are then generated into a proper document that a defendant can print and submit to the courts.
The students spent the semester developing the program, which including going out into the community and finding debtors who had defaulted on their lawsuits.
Cami Schiel, a recent BYU graduate, said it was through those interviews that she realized the SoloSuit program needed to be made as simple as possible. People were intimidated by legal terms, she said, and often felt embarrassed that they hadn’t been able to pay their debts.
“It’s just been this overarching thing of shame and, ‘I kind of want to get this over with,’ and ‘I don’t know who to trust,’ ” she said. “… I felt like people really had no idea what was going on, and they didn’t understand all the rules.”
Stripping the legal terms out of the program to make the questions easier for users was one of the bigger challenges the students tackled, Parker said. “Admit” became “I completely agree.” “Deny” is “I disagree with something.” Instead of asking if the debtor had any witnesses, the program asks, “Are there any people who support your side of the story?”
The online tool created by BYU’s LawX students to help Utahns who cannot afford legal services respond to debt-collection lawsuits is available for free at www.solosuit.com.
Parker, a Salt Lake City-based lawyer who co-created the LawX course, said that while they hope this tool will help people navigate the legal system without a lawyer, he recognizes barriers still exist that make fighting a lawsuit difficult.
Even after filing their responses, defendants will likely still need to go to court to sort out their lawsuits — though debtor clinics and other programs could help connect them to lawyers who can help them for free.
In addition, Utah courts require defendants without an attorney to hand-deliver or mail their responses to the court — only lawyers are allowed to electronically file documents. Nearly all of the debtors the students spoke to, however, don’t own a printer.
Parker said he’s asked the courts to change this rule, but court officials say it won’t be a simple fix.
“Emailing legal documents would prove to be very complicated,” court spokesman Geoff Fattah said. “The courts would need to be able to verify the identity of the petitioner to prevent abuse or fraud. Emails can be spoofed, and in order to protect people, the courts would need to make sure the petitioner’s identity is confirmed.”
Fattah said the courts are moving forward to make the e-filing system available to those who represent themselves in court, but say they are working out issues in the current system, which is not user-friendly to nonlawyers.
BYU’s SoloSuit tool is already being used in other states. Alaska’s court system will pilot the software program for debt-collection cases in that state, and an Arizona nonprofit organization will use it for eviction cases.
Parker said the LawX class will return to BYU this fall, and a new batch of students will work to identify and tackle another legal problem. There is no set topic yet, he said, but the goal again will be to help regular people understand and have better access to Utah’s legal system.