SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
As part of our ongoing series Take A Number, here's another number - 21, as in 21 days. If you get sued for debt in Utah, that's how long you have to respond to a complaint in the mail. The complaints are written in fine print legalese, and they can be confusing. But despite that, 98.5 percent of debtors try to navigate the process without any legal help and often end up paying more than they should. That's what an adjunct professor and group of law students at Brigham Young University want to fix. Lee Hale from member station KUER in Salt Lake City has the story.
LEE HALE, BYLINE: Chris Edwards is 40, married, has three kids at home. Over the years, he's had highs and lows financially.
CHRIS EDWARDS: It's hard when you're bringing in a certain income, and, all of sudden, it drops to maybe a third of what you were making before.
HALE: To sustain a level of comfort for his family in their home south of Salt Lake, Edwards began visiting cash loan centers when work was slow. And he's often had trouble paying back what he's owed. He says debt collectors have come after him nearly 20 times now for various expenses, including a gym membership that had lapsed. It ended up costing him a lot.
EDWARDS: Like, $1,400, plus attorney's fees - yeah. So it was, like, $1,600.
HALE: He didn't have the money. And he didn't get legal help. So the money was garnished from his paychecks at the car dealership where he worked.
EDWARDS: When you get a summons, they don't explain to you that you have to fill it out. You have it turn it in. You just hear you have to go to court. And when you're reading it, it's almost foreign language.
KIMBALL PARKER: The system is set up for lawyers. And so a nonlwayer trying to navigate that system - it's virtually impossible.
HALE: This is Kimball Parker, a lawyer based in Salt Lake who gets pretty worked up about this stuff. In the world of Utah lawsuits, Parker says debt is public enemy No. 1.
PARKER: Basically, when you're sued, you have to file a response to the lawsuit within 21 days. And if you don't file within that amount of time, you lose the lawsuit automatically.
HALE: Let's say you have a debt. It could be a medical bill or a payday loan. There will come a time when the company wants their money. You'll get a complaint and summons sent to you that requires a response. And if you don't respond in 21 days, whatever is written on that paper becomes fact. What they say you owe, you owe. This is legal. And this is what brings us to Brigham Young University Law School and a class with a purposefully mysterious name, LawX.
PARKER: In other classes, you talk a lot about problems, and you theorize about how to solve them. But it doesn't go anywhere past that.
HALE: Together with BYU, Parker hatched a plan to solve this debt problem. The idea was to create a semester-long design lab that would result in a free resource for those facing debt lawsuits. Nine students jumped at the opportunity. To help them get started, two IBM engineers volunteered their time to strategize with the team. They filled a wall with Post-It notes, worked on prototypes, interviewed people in their homes. The result - a website that's hopefully as easy as TurboTax for debtors.
PARKER: OK. So we tried to make this landing page really friendly. Sued for debt - we can help.
HALE: We're in a small conference room on BYU campus that serves as LawX headquarters. Parker is reviewing the website with this team. It's called SoloSuit. What happens is the debtor signs up. And then they use the complaint they got in the mail to answer some questions. What company or person is suing you? Who is their lawyer? And on the day I was there, they were struggling with this question - which court should the response be mailed to? It isn't always clear.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If they don't put it on the complaint, do we need to put it on the answer?
PARKER: Yes. Yes, because we need to know where to send it. You send it to the district. Does that make sense? So...
HALE: The priority is to make this step-by-step process as simple as possible. What they're doing is crafting a highly detailed letter in response to the summons. They don't want someone giving up halfway.
CAMI SHIEL: It's so clear that there are so many rules and so many - you know, if you miss one thing, then your answer doesn't count.
HALE: Cami Shiel graduated from BYU Law at the end of last semester. Yet she's back on campus, helping with the finishing touches. She's one of the nine students who helped craft the website. Shiel says this kind of scrutiny, this designing and redesigning that has led to more work hours than anyone could have anticipated - that's kind of the reason she signed up for the class.
SHIEL: I wanted a more hands-on approach, a more of a problem-solving experience as opposed to, you know, the other - a lot of the other classes are lecture and notetaking and outlining.
HALE: In its first week online, 80 people used SoloSuit. The team is hoping for 1,000 users by the end of the year. And its impact hasn't stopped at the state line. Alaska will pilot SoloSuit later this year. And there have been inquiries from groups in Idaho, Washington and California. What started as essentially a class project could help shape how some states offer legal help to those who can't afford it. For NPR News, I'm Lee Hale in Salt Lake City.
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