Fighting Legal Complexity: How Sen. Warren’s Bankruptcy Plan Defends Civil Rights

One of the dark realities of the American democracy is that we don’t have equal protection under the law. We have equal protection under the law if you can afford a lawyer. We’ve made our legal forms and processes so complex that most people must pay expensive fees to lawyers to understand and access their basic civil legal rights.

One area where this problem is clear is in consumer bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is a powerful tool that helps families who face financial shocks relieve their debt, improve their credit, and stop wage garnishment. Then-Professor Elizabeth Warren’s influential research from when she first entered bankruptcy law found over 90% of bankruptcies are caused by medical problems, layoffs, and family break-ups. Unfortunately, today’s bankruptcy system requires someone to fill and print out 23 separate forms and understand terms like “unsecured nonpriority debt.” This complexity means the legal fees in Chapter 7 bankruptcy cost $1200 on average. Millions of low- and middle-income families who can’t afford this fee are priced out of their right to a second chance.

The needless legal complexity within our bankruptcy system is a civil rights injustice. Today’s forms are a modern-day version of the literacy tests that used to stop black and brown people from being able to vote. In turn, these “literacy tests” create expensive legal fees that stop black and brown people from filing bankruptcy. These fees are a reincarnation of poll taxes.

Complex legal paperwork is often a tool of the rich and powerful to oppress the marginalized, poor, and vulnerable. This is true in bankruptcy, but also several other areas of the law that pertain to life, liberty, and property.

This week, now-Senator Warren released a robust plan to simplify our bankruptcy system, making it more accessible for families who are currently too broke to file. Her bold solutions to decrease the amount of paperwork, eliminate ineffective credit counseling requirements, and combine two chapters of bankruptcy will help millions of families re-enter our economy. Debt has devastating downstream effects on society that include homelessness, hunger, and poverty. Senator Warren’s plan will help stop these problems before they happen.

I know this because I’ve seen firsthand what Americans are capable of when they get a second chance. In 2016, I started Upsolve, a nonprofit to help families file bankruptcy at scale, using a free online web app. Today, we’re the largest nonprofit bankruptcy provider in America, and we’ve relieved over $100 million in debt for remarkable individuals like Alisa Pratt from the Bronx.

In 2016, Alisa was trapped in debt, which forced her to skip meals, clean her clothes in her sink, and overcome depression. One of the main reasons Alisa fell into debt was that her former partner took out a car loan in her name before they split up. Since filing for bankruptcy, Alisa has turned around her life. She founded a girl’s dance team that’s performed around the world, including the Cannes Film Festival, started a new job at a leading nonprofit in the Bronx, and received the Robin Hood Foundation Heroes Award to a 500-person standing ovation in New York City. Senator Warren’s strengthens the safety net for Alisa and amazing people like her.

Senator Warren’s plan is groundbreaking because it uses our bankruptcy system to highlight the Access to Justice Crisis in America, a civil rights issue that has gone largely unnoticed by the general public. Unlike in the criminal justice system, low- and middle-income individuals have no right to any free legal representation in the civil justice system. This includes people who are evicted from their homes, physically abused by their spouses, or trapped in debt and in need of bankruptcy. Over three in four civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help.

Senator Warren presents a vision for America where everyone can access our legal system, regardless of whether they can afford an entrance fee. A simpler, more comprehensible system returns the law to the working families it’s supposed to protect. According to this vision, our rights will be more equal, our democracy more just, and our founding ideals more real.


This is an opinion piece that does not necessarily represent the views of BLACK ENTERPRISE.