How tech and the court teamed up to fight smartphone evictions

How tech and the court teamed up to fight smartphone evictions

Massachusetts tenants facing eviction orders often face an uphill battle when trying to navigate the appeals process, said Paul Tuttle, assistant clerk at the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, who took speaking at the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) eCourts conference.

Pandemic-era court closures only added to the struggle and sent him searching for a solution. A collaboration with Suffolk University’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab has led to a guided digital interview tool for defendants facing deportation within the next 48 hours. The result, Tuttle said, is a simpler and faster experience for defendants, and clerks receive more accurate information.


Ninety percent of defendants in eviction cases are self-representing, Tuttle said, and before the pandemic, those whose petitions were denied by housing court had to travel to Boston to make call — no matter where in the state they lived — or file online. If they wanted help understanding the type of information to submit when e-filing, defendants should go to the clerk’s office in Boston. Another challenge? The help clinic for defendants was only open on Wednesdays, for two hours.

When defendants were out of clinic hours, clerks “basically had to…give litigants a yellow notepad and tell them they need to file a motion, and roughly what kind of information needs to be filed. be included in this query,” Tuttle said. “But in reality, they only had a blank sheet of paper.”

This led to confusions and errors. Court clerks sometimes received forms with off-topic explanations from defendants confused about what was being asked of them. Fee waiver requests accompanying stay of eviction applications may lack check marks or signatures that tenants must then return to complete.

When the pandemic hit, Tuttle trialled a variety of ready-to-use digital forms in hopes of making the process easier, before teaming up with the Suffolk lab for a bespoke offer.

Their collaboration resulted in a guided interview tool that helps self-represented litigants navigate step-by-step eviction appeal petitions and several other legal filings, with explanations provided. The team continues to iterate on the project, updating features, adding availability in new languages, and adding other legal procedures.


The tool has been a game-changer for litigants and clerks, Tuttle said.

Thanks to the advice given by the tool, court clerks receive more relevant and more complete information from litigants. Additionally, court clerks who receive paper forms must type details by hand, but electronic filings flow more easily through court systems, saving about 20 data entry steps per file.

In turn, the tool saves self-represented defendants from having to decipher legal nuances and idiosyncrasies, explained Quinten Steenhuis and Bryce Willey, who are both clinical fellows at the Technology Lab. For example, the team also introduced the e-filing tool in Illinois, where people filing without an attorney must enter a specific six-digit code that varies by county; the digital tool can find and plug in the code for them.

The tool also allows users to quickly access court services. In one case, a defendant was mid-eviction when she pulled out her smartphone to file an appeal. His approval came shortly after, as the police officer was in the process of removing his property from the scene, Tuttle recalled.

“The eviction started at 9:30 a.m.,” he said. “We got the motion around 9:45 a.m., and at 10 a.m. there was a court order to stop the eviction, so the constable had to move what [furniture] he was back in the truck in the house and the case was put on hold because there was a problem with the way the eviction went down in the trial court… there’s just no way that She could have filed this request without the Guided Maintenance Tool. “

Paul Tuttle, Bryce Willey and Quinten Steenhuis speak at an eCourts panel on Dec. 5.

Left to right: Paul Tuttle, Bryce Willey and Quinten Steenhuis speak during a panel on eCourts on December 5.

Jule Pattison Gordon


To make the tool widely useful, the team needed accessibility features. This included designing for people with visual limitations and presenting information in accessible terms at a fourth- to sixth-grade reading level, Steenhuis said. Features designed to make tools inclusive for people with special needs often end up benefiting the majority of users, Willey noted.

Additionally, they decided that the tool should guide litigants through the process, including having a “one-click” process for submitting the form to the court. Too many offerings fail by supporting users through one game, but then abandoning them to figure out the final stages on their own, Steenhuis said.

Given the current cybersecurity climate, it was also important to limit data retention. Willey said they automatically delete data after 30 days if users don’t re-engage with the tool, meaning there’s less information hackers could potentially steal.

A screenshot of a sample page in the eviction tool.

An example step of the eviction tool, presented during the panel.

A screenshot of an example step of the evict tool.

An example step of the eviction tool, presented during the panel.


A good enough but available tool is more useful to tenants than a polished tool that frees itself after they evict, speakers said. That meant overcoming the courts’ usual reluctance to release anything other than a highly polished product, Tuttle said.

Instead, the Suffolk team pushed for an iterative approach. They identified what, ideally, they would like the tool to look like, but decided to release a version of the product once they had something better than the status quo – that is, better than a PDF or printed form to fill out at home, Steenhuis said.

Once this first version was available and helping people, the team could then dig in to add and test improvements, like user experience tweaks.

Bringing the judicial and software worlds together was also important for another reason: the courts must remain neutral and avoid giving advice to anyone. The collaboration allowed court officials to stay firmly on the side of providing legal expertise, while letting their technology lab partners host the software and decide what content to use.

“We can objectively say, ‘What I’m trying to be is helpful,’ which is sometimes a little harder for the court to do,” Steenhuis said.

The team has been working on the project for two years and the lab expects to be able to maintain the offer in part by having students work on it as part of their courses.

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