There are more than 7,000 evictions filed in Utah every year, with only a slim portion of those being evicted responding to the legal filing, and even fewer represented by an attorney.
An upcoming partnership between Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law innovation for Justice program is looking to change that.
“We want this to be a win for both sides,” said Kimball Parker, the director of the LawX Legal Design Lab at BYU.
The LawX lab launched last year with the goal of making the law more accessible for people without legal backgrounds.
Work last year into debt collection led to the creation and release of SoloSuit, a TurboTax-like program that helps those without attorneys respond to debt collection lawsuits.
The team chose debt collection due to the small number of people who responded to a debt collection lawsuit. The same research led Parker to want to tackle eviction as this year’s project.
“Eviction was kind of on the radar through that and the more research that I did on eviction the more the topic stood out like a sore thumb,” he said.
Tenants have three days to respond to an eviction notice, and Parker said the response to those notices is low.
“The consequences of not responding in many cases is homelessness,” Parker said.
He said many evictions are warranted, but the lack of legal representation for tenants and the short timeframe tenants have to respond to an eviction is troublesome. He said eviction rates are higher now than during the Great Depression.
“There did not use to be this huge eviction epidemic and now there is and we want to figure out why,” Parker said. “This is a complicated issue and it’s more complicated than the debt collection issue.”
The plan is to follow the model the previous design lab class took and interview those around the issue, including those in the court system, tenants who were evicted and landlords.
BYU’s lab will be a handful of students that meet for a semester to brainstorm solutions, which could a way to help people fight evictions or a way to mediate disputes between landlords and tenants. BYU’s group will be in touch with the University of Arizona team weekly.
The collaborative product could be used in both states, nationwide or there could be separate products implemented in each of the two states.
SoloSuit, the award-winning product of last year’s design lab, has been more successful than anticipated.
Parker said more than 700 people have used it since it was launched six months ago, toppling the 300 the team wanted to reach for the year.
Ryan Lewis, a BYU law school graduate, was in the LawX lab last year. He wanted to be optimistic about SoloSuit, but worried it would never be used.
“I was really blown away and pleasantly surprised,” Lewis said.
After interviewing people about debt collection, he learned that many people felt helpless, felt like the legal system was stacked against them and didn’t understand complicated legal jargon.
He said the SoloSuit program could be adjusted to help people with other legal issues.