Experts Discuss How to Make Philadelphia’s Municipal Court More Accessible

Court leader and national expert team up to increase equity in city’s “people’s court”

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Experts Discuss How to Make Philadelphia’s Municipal Court More Accessible
A dark metal plaque with gold letters that read “Philadelphia Municipal Court” is centered on a stone wall next to the court building’s entrance in Center City.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Other than jury duty, Philadelphia Municipal Court is often the first, and sometimes only, interaction the city’s residents have with the court system. The court has the highest volume of cases in the city’s judicial system, as well as a high number of default judgments (cases in which one litigant does not appear in court, so the other party automatically wins the case). In The Pew Charitable Trusts’ survey of litigants who were sued in Philadelphia Municipal Court in 2018, 85% of respondents said they needed a lawyer and only 44% agreed with the statement that it was “easy to understand” what happened in their case in Municipal Court.

Since 2020, Pew and the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), a nonprofit that provides technical assistance and guidance on current and emerging trends in court administration, have collaborated with Philadelphia’s Municipal Court leadership on enhancing access for litigants, creating online tools and resources to better support litigants in navigating the court, and updating rules and procedures. In addition, Pew has released previous research on the city’s Municipal Court, including on how service of process works as well as analyzing where small claims defendants live in the city.

This interview with Judge Matthew Wolf, former supervising judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court’s civil division, and Zach Zarnow, deputy managing director of the access to justice team at NCSC, has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What steps does the court take to make sure that people who are sued in small claims court have all the information they need?

Judge Matthew Wolf: When a party files a small claims lawsuit, the suit goes into a statement of claim and is delivered—along with an information packet—to the defendant through in-person service of process. The packet includes the time, date, and location for the trial, and an explanation of the defendant’s rights. Additionally, a “frequently asked questions” sheet gives notice of issues that commonly come up in court for unrepresented litigants—meaning those who don’t have an attorney representing them.

Then, when a party appears in court, a court commissioner reads a script to explain litigants’ rights and what they should expect to happen. We revised the script in the last year in consultation with NCSC to be at an appropriate reading level for all litigants.

Q: What are the challenges that court systems are facing today around small claims and debt collection cases?

Zach Zarnow: What’s happening in Philadelphia Municipal Court is pretty similar to what’s happening nationally. The first challenge is volume: There are a lot of these cases, and they make up a large percentage of the docket. That can be a challenge to manage.

Additionally, the parties have disparate levels of sophistication. What you often see in Philadelphia, and elsewhere, is a small group of regular plaintiffs (often institutions) and a broader group of defendants (often individuals). Plaintiffs are generally represented, and defendants often are not. So plaintiffs and defendants understand the system differently, and that sophistication imbalance is a real challenge for courts, which must remain impartial and offer no special benefit to one side over the other.

In other words, how do you make sure people are getting a fair shake and that the system is understandable? And how do you make sure people can participate meaningfully without crossing the line of offering more help to one side?

Wolf: One challenge I faced when I began supervising the civil section in 2020 is that debt collection cases were perceived to be biased in favor of the plaintiff. Defendants would show up expecting a trial, because all the paperwork they had received stated that it was a trial date, but then plaintiffs would rarely be ready and the matter would routinely have to be postponed, sometimes more than once. So you’re asking defendants to take off work and lose money to come in multiple times.

And then, frequently, the case would only go before a commissioner and not—as is the litigant’s right—a judge. This doesn’t conform to national standards of due process: When a trial is scheduled, a person has a right to see a judge.

Q: Were you able to remedy that?

Wolf: We trained our commissioners to ensure that anyone who wants to see a judge gets to do so on the day of the trial. This sounds so fundamental, but it wasn’t the practice up to 2020. It took a while to ensure that plaintiffs’ lawyers were aware that they had to be ready on the listed trial date. 

Q: What about other challenges?

Wolf: Another issue was so-called “purchased debt” cases. Up until 2020, the party that purchased debt from a credit card company, for example, was not being held accountable for showing the court that they had chain of custody of the assigned debt, and inadequate paperwork was more often than not being put on the docket or brought to court to show custody and ownership of the alleged debt. This also didn’t conform with due process, in my opinion.

Q: What did you do about that?

Wolf: In 2021, we started to ensure that the court could be satisfied that the plaintiff had standing to claim they had ownership of the purchased debt. This, too, sounds very fundamental, but it wasn’t previously the standard.

Q: Transparency’s also an issue, isn’t it?

Wolf: Yes. Organizations like Pew and other interested nonprofits like to study our court, which we’ve encouraged. Plaintiffs in purchased-debt cases generally evolved after 2021 to placing a lot of information on the docket to support their claims in response to efforts by the court to ensure that they had standing, but then the plaintiffs would mark those documents as confidential because they contained personally identifiable information such as credit card numbers or birthdates. So instead of filing redacted documents, they would cause the entire set of documents to be sealed. This isn’t consistent with transparency, and it prevents third parties from analyzing the quality of documentation being filed. We had to push back on that and ensure that documents were not overly voluminous and that they were redacted as opposed to sealed on the docket. 

Q: You’ve mentioned a few changes to processes, tools, and resources for small claims cases in Philadelphia Municipal Court in recent years. There have been others as well. How have they affected litigants’ access to the court?

Wolf: We’re concerned with equity and the impact our court has on real people. It’s better for everyone—the court, plaintiffs, and defendants—when matters are resolved on the merits either with a settlement agreement or with a trial rather than by a default judgment that happens when one side doesn’t appear in court. We’ve tried to create circumstances that make the court hospitable and welcoming to litigants so they’re comfortable and knowledgeable. If people are comfortable, matters can be litigated more fairly.

Thanks to a Pew grant to NCSC to consult with the court, I think we’ve changed all litigant-facing materials, including the website. Those changes make the court more transparent and approachable, and keep people informed so they can set expectations and not be intimidated.

We’ve also changed the culture of the court. For purchased-debt cases, it had become the norm that people wouldn’t get a trial on the first listed trial date, even though that’s their right. But now reality meets expectations; there’s no longer an assumed postponement that forces people who are already struggling financially to take off work twice to deal with an issue they want to contest. We addressed an internal culture that I feel was pro-plaintiff, and I think we’ve made it a neutral place for litigants to hash out their differences.

We have tremendous sets of data from Pew’s research that was conducted before I took the bench, and I look forward to seeing if we’ve had an impact on lowering default judgments over time.

Our goal has always been to get to national best practices. We’re not there yet, but in consultation with folks like NCSC and Pew, I feel as though we’ve made great strides toward national best practices over the past few years. If we continue, we’ll be a national model for all courts in the country.

Zarnow: I give the court a lot of credit. It’s not easy to take a critical inward look and be open to these changes.

In addition to the changes Judge Wolf mentioned, there’s an effort underway to revise the local court rules with an eye toward equity and accessibility. We’ve also helped revise the materials—not only on the website but also those that are mailed to people—to make them easier to understand.

Q: Tell us more about what you’ve done with the website.

Zarnow: We took the Municipal Court website from a 12th-grade to a fifth-grade reading level and made it more accessible, as well as mobile-friendly. We also have two online interactive navigation tools coming out soon, which will provide assistance to both plaintiffs and defendants and break down, step by step, the procedural and logistical information in a way that’s tailored to a user’s specific needs.

This is all part of addressing the high default rate Judge Wolf mentioned. People might not have understood the service documents they received, what they should do, or the consequences of not showing up to court. Our hope is that if we meet people where they are and offer them information that’s tailored to them, in an understandable format, then more people will show up to court.

Q: And showing up in court is, of course, important.

Zarnow: Yes. On an individual level, you want people to show up and have their case decided on the merits. If they don’t appear, they have no opportunities to make their arguments and have their case heard.

On a systemic level, when people are able to participate in a meaningful way, they feel more trust and confidence in the judicial system. Research tells us that if people feel respected and understand the process, it increases their sense of procedural justice, even if the case’s outcome wasn’t what they wanted. That’s really important for the judicial system and our country.  

Wolf: I go out of my way to explain my ruling to the litigants. Even if they’re the losing party, it helps to understand the reasoning of why they lost. More often than not, I see understanding and agreement from both parties, and that’s meaningful participation.

Municipal Court may be the only time a person is in court in their life. Defendants may get intimidated, and plaintiffs’ attorneys may have an unfair advantage since they’re knowledgeable about the law, so it’s an unfair playing field.

Having access to court means having access to a place that is not hostile, that is deliberate, and that is slow. We should give each litigant the time, information, and hospitable environment they need to have the matter heard on its merits without intimidation. It’s about making sure justice is done without giving one side an advantage.

Q: Zach made the point that it’s good for society as a whole when people show up in court. Are there other ways in which the work you’re doing might have broader benefits?

Wolf: In Philadelphia, we have a housing crisis. Affordable housing is disappearing in terms of both buying and renting. The wait for subsidized housing is off the charts—and it takes years to get off the waiting list. Landlords use rental qualifying companies that are going to disqualify people who have judgments against them from renting because they’re seen as a financial default risk. Too often, those people then end up in substandard, subprime unlicensed and unregulated rental units that are unfit for human habitation. Or, if they want to buy a home, mortgage companies won’t lend to them because of their low credit scores or because they have a lien on their property; no mortgage company is going to lend to a person who has a judgment against them unless it’s satisfied. So these folks are stuck in a cycle of poverty.

If the court can do anything to help these people without tipping the scales of justice, I believe it’s our obligation to do so. We’re not a social services agency. But we’re what’s often referred to as a “people’s court,” and we have real opportunities to lessen the misery that emanates from our granting of judgments and default judgments.

Q: For instance?

Wolf: For instance, our mediation department has an extraordinary success rate in having people either enter into a settlement without a judgment or enter into a judgment with payment terms that will eventually allow the judgment to be satisfied and go away. This is a win-win for the plaintiff and the defendant, without the court favoring one side over another.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your partnership?

Zarnow: It’s impressive how collaborative this project has been. The court asked for outside help, and nothing was done behind closed doors. With Judge Wolf’s leadership, we reached out to lots of stakeholders to get their ideas and make sure our changes were responsive to the needs of the community and court users. Any success that we’ve had is a result of this collaborative approach, which inevitably leads to better outcomes than doing it alone.

Wolf: From a policy perspective, courts should involve—as often and as deeply as possible—third-party external organizations’ critical analysis, which can help you see where you’re at as a court and whether you’re serving the community properly. If you’re relying only on internal structures for criticism, you won’t get honest feedback. Having external people criticize the court is essential to growth and evolution.

Courts can stagnate as the law evolves, and that’s not healthy. How you serve people needs to be contemporary.

Judge Matthew Wolf, who now serves on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, an intermediate appellate court, was until January 2024 the supervising civil judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court, where he championed modernization and reform of the Civil Division. Wolf also serves with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Zach Zarnow is deputy managing director of NCSC’s access to justice team, working with various court systems around the country to improve the experience of self-represented litigants.

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