Plain Language Debt Collection Letter Packet Enhances Defendant Knowledge, Engagement


Media Contact:
Laura Felix
Texas Appleseed
512-473-2800, ext. 106

Texas Appleseed Develops a Proposed Letter Packet to Increase Access to Justice, Recommends Statewide Adoption

AUSTIN, Texas — To make it easier for Texans to participate in the legal process, Texas Appleseed developed a proposed plain language letter packet to be distributed to consumer debt collection defendants by the court. A study conducted by the organization suggests that providing a defendant with this packet would significantly improve their understanding of the case and their likelihood of engaging in the legal process. The findings are revealed in the report Improving Access to Justice in Consumer Debt Lawsuits.

Debt claim cases in Texas jumped 87 percent from 2017 to 2021. Of those, 62 percent were default judgments, judgments in favor of the plaintiff because the defendant failed to answer the lawsuit or appear in court.

“Defendants who lose their cases could find their bank accounts completely drained by debt collectors,” Briana Gordley, Policy Analyst for the Fair Financial Services Project at Texas Appleseed said. “That’s why it’s so important that Texans understand the legal action being taken against them and what they can do about it.”

To address this concerning trend, the Texas Judicial Council adopted two resolutions directing the Texas Office of Court Administration to develop a model plain language packet for defendants. Through funding support from the Texas Bar Foundation, Texas Appleseed developed a proposed packet and conducted a study of its efficacy.

The information provided in the packet is intended specifically for Texans who may not have the resources to hire an attorney and would therefore need to navigate the process on their own, providing them access to information for a pro se defense, in which a party to a lawsuit represents themselves in court. 

Phase I of Texas Appleseed’s study involved presenting participants with a citation and petition for a debt collection lawsuit and gauging their level of understanding of the documents via written survey and verbal discussion. Participants understood some basic components but reported feeling anxious, stressed and confused about how to proceed. Although 77 percent knew that the next step was to file an answer, they could not explain what that meant. 

In Phase II, participants reviewed the letter packet and then were asked to complete the same written survey from Phase I to determine if there were changes in their understanding of the lawsuit. Seventy-seven percent of participants correctly identified the full court name, compared to 37 percent before receiving the packet. There also was a statistically significant increase in participants’ ability to identify whom the defendant could contact with questions and the ease with which they answered the survey questions for the study. 

Even with access to the letter packet, there remained ongoing confusion about the date of service. While participants understood they should file an answer within 14 days, they were unable to correctly identify the specific date for filing an answer — not before or after reviewing the letter packet.

Another finding was the importance of language access. Notably, Spanish-speaking participants, who received the letter packet in Spanish, experienced a particular increase in ease of understanding the lawsuit, from 30 percent finding it somewhat easy or very easy originally to 90 percent afterward, highlighting the positive impacts of language access. 

In Phase III, participants were asked to answer the lawsuit using the sample answer form that was included with the letter packet. Although most participants could correctly identify enough information to complete the form, they still expressed confusion regarding the applicability of the defenses to their debt scenario. This, coupled with hesitation surrounding next steps is indicative of the limitations of a pro se defense and suggests that the packet could be improved by further highlighting information about what to expect after submitting the answer form. 

Conclusion and Recommendations

“Although the debt collection letter packet cannot replace access to legal counsel, the findings in this study show that it is a helpful tool for pro se debt collection defendants to assert their legal rights,” said Ann Baddour, Director of the Fair Financial Services Project at Texas Appleseed.

Texas Appleseed recommends that the Office of Court Administration consider using this packet to pilot in a court for further study or as a template to fulfill the Texas Judicial Council’s resolutions. Also important is developing a process to provide the information to debt defendants, including addressing necessary logistics associated with printing and mailing the packet and ensuring it is received in advance of the lawsuit answer deadline. 

It’s difficult to build public confidence in a system that perpetuates a disparity of knowledge and experience with the legal process between the parties. Texas Appleseed believes that informing debt defendants with a user-friendly, language-accessible debt collection letter packet is a positive step to enhance access to justice for all Texans. 

About Texas Appleseed

As one of the most trusted resources for data-driven policy analysis and solutions, Texas Appleseed advocates at the state and local level for fair, just, and equitable laws. Our work has shaped hundreds of laws and positively affected millions of Texans by breaking down barriers through transformative policy solutions. Visit for more information.