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We conducted a field experiment in which 311 low-income individuals seeking a divorce were randomly assigned to receive access to a pro bono lawyer (versus minimal help) to assist with filing for divorce. Examining court records, we found that assignment to an attorney made a large difference in whether participants filed for and obtained a divorce. Three years after randomization, 46% of the treated group had terminated their marriages in the proper legal venue, compared to 9% of the control group. Among “compliers”—participants who obtained representation only if assigned to receive it—those with lawyers were far more likely to file for and obtain a divorce than those not assigned lawyers. Because divorce implicates fundamental constitutional interests and can be effectuated only by resort to the courts, the US Constitution requires that dissolution of marriage be made achievable regardless of ability to pay. Yet, we observed few low-income individuals who were able to initiate divorce suits on their own. Through interviews and archival research, we identified barriers that low-income litigants faced in navigating the divorce system, including mandatory wait times, limited hours at important facilities, and burdensome paperwork sometimes requiring access to photocopiers and typewriters. This study therefore documents a salient instance in which a civil legal process was inaccessible to those without lawyers, even though their legal issues were straightforward, involving few if any matters for courts to adjudicate.


© 2021 National Academy of Sciences. Reproduced with permission.