Tribune Editorial: BYU Law School is improving debt collection in Utah

Debt in Utah is big money.

In 2015, 98 percent of the 67,510 debt collection cases involved one party with an attorney and one party without an attorney. Debt collectors have representation 100 percent of the time; it is the debtors who go unrepresented. In fact, debt collection cases have the highest percentage of self-representation in Utah. Only two percent of cases in 2015 involved attorneys on both sides.

In other words, debtors are mostly trying to represent themselves in debt collection legal proceedings. It is a recipe for disaster; at least it has been.

The problem for a debtor facing a debt collection case is that if he doesn’t respond in time, his small debt of $100 or $200 could easily balloon to $1000 or more when the court system adds costs and attorney’s fees. If the debtor doesn’t respond to the complaint and summons, the collector wins, and can start collecting. Most debtors don’t even realize they are in default.

Brigham Young University Law School is trying to change the high rate of debt collection default judgments through a new program called LawX. A type of clinic to help law students gain real legal experience, the class’s first project took on the development of a software program that would help parties answer and respond to debt collection complaints.

In an interview with KUER-FM, one of the program’s founders, Salt Lake City lawyer Kimball Parker, said, “The goal of LawX year after year is to make Utah the state with the most accessible laws in the nation. We are going to chip away at that year after year.”

Preparing a legal answer is not easy if you’re not familiar with legalese. The new software will help a debtor prepare a legal document according to court rules and requirements. It will also help debtors claim applicable defenses.

The new program could change the nature of debt collection in Utah.

Of the complicated court system, Parker explained, “It’s a system designed for lawyers where the majority of defendants don’t have a lawyer. That doesn’t make any sense.”

On average, debtors throughout the state default on more than 65 percent of debt collection cases. The default rate on all cases averages 50 percent. Most of the cases in default in Utah are debt collection cases.

BYU Law recognized a real crisis in Utah’s legal community, and has worked to fix it by increasing access to justice.

We need more of that.