Welcome to my first of three blog posts showcasing how RSI uses our expertise in dispute system design to improve access to justice in the three foreclosure mediation programs we administer. I originally conceived of this series after reading Richard Zorza’s post inviting the legal community, including those working in ADR, to define what 100% access to justice might look like. My introduction to the series provoked a response from Richard, offering several topics for consideration, which then inspired a follow-up to those ideas from RSI’s Director of Research, Jen Shack, who expanded upon his analysis.
One issue both Richard and Jen agreed on was the importance of using good outcome measures to drive program improvements. Richard focused on the need for “accurate, credible, and comprehensive measures” that can be compared across systems, and Jen echoed that “we need to know what works and what doesn’t so that improvements can be made.” Reliable data is RSI’s bread and butter, and it is where we begin this portrait of the 19th Judicial Circuit Residential Foreclosure Mediation Program in Lake County, Illinois.
Lake County’s program recently celebrated its two-year anniversary of giving homeowners facing foreclosure a fair chance at keeping their homes. RSI helped launch the program with grant funding from the Illinois Office of the Attorney General in partnership with the local court and housing counseling agencies. Under the same grant, RSI also created two other foreclosure mediation programs in northern Illinois and developed a statewide monitoring and evaluation system for all six of the Attorney General-funded programs. Our work has allowed us to collect uniform data across all six programs for easy and informative comparison.
The Lake County Program Coordinator, Olga Kordonskaya, collects and reviews data specific to the Lake County program and meets with judges and court administrators monthly to discuss her findings. Each quarter, RSI provides judges and court administrators with statistical reports that summarize and compare all six programs by participation rates, participant satisfaction, and outcomes during each stage of the program. “This culture of ongoing monitoring allows us to catch and respond to issues quickly,” Olga said.
One of the issues she noticed was that while the program helped nearly 70% of homeowners who completed it avoid foreclosure, low participation rates overall meant that there were many eligible homeowners who were not taking advantage of the program’s services. This low participation rate was particularly troublesome in light of the demonstrated benefits – both in terms of foreclosures avoided and procedural justice – of completing the program. Specifically, almost 60% of homeowners who went through the program were able to keep their homes, and 95% felt the process was fair.
Perhaps just as importantly, homeowners who are exposed to but do not complete the entire program process benefit as well. Once homeowners enroll in the program, they meet individually with HUD-certified housing counselors. A number of cases reach agreement and avoid foreclosure during this first pre-mediation housing counseling stage, and the post-housing counseling participant surveys we collect show that 99% of homeowners understood their options better after meeting with housing counselors. There is also evidence that working with housing counselors increases the likelihood of receiving a loan modification when compared with not using such a service. All of this reinforces the idea that participation matters, not simply for getting a larger pool of homeowners to complete a process that could allow them to keep their homes, but also for getting more homeowners access to free services that provide real value along the way.
So why was Lake County’s program participation rate lower than those of similar programs? Luckily, having uniform data across programs allowed for some enlightening comparisons. First, Olga noticed that judicial referrals were happening in other counties with higher participation rates. This was something that the judges could quickly fix once they were aware that judge referral was successful in other programs. They increased the number of cases they referred to the program in early 2015. Data shows that this is having an impact on participation. In the first six months of 2015, the judges ordered 76 cases to the program, and 64 of those participated. This represents more than half of all cases the program helped in that time.
Second, RSI’s program in a neighboring county had a similar number of new foreclosure filings and a similar demographic profile, but had a much higher participation rate. This program only required that homeowners call the program coordinator to enroll. By contrast, Lake County’s program originally required that homeowners attend an in-person information session offered in the evenings and then take the initiative to call the housing counseling agency to schedule an appointment. Armed with this information, RSI worked with the Court to propose amendments to the local rule governing the program to switch to the phone intake model. We are thrilled to report that earlier this month, those changes were approved and will go into effect on January 4, 2016.
The Lake County story shows the importance of clear, consistent, reliable data for addressing barriers to accessing justice in court ADR programs. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation have allowed RSI to notice and respond to those barriers in Lake County in ways that might not have been possible without a comprehensive understanding of outcomes within and across programs.
Stay tuned for the next installment in the series, when we’ll take a look at the importance of thoughtful triage in promoting access to justice.