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Grant-Funded Research Adds to Evidence on How to Make Eviction Mediation Effective

Eric Slepak-Cherney, November 21st, 2022

Last month, RSI reached the end of an 18-month grant from the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution (AAA-ICDR) Foundation. A primary goal of the grant was to provide guidance to courts nationwide about addressing the eviction crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. As that project has come to a close, we at RSI would like to look back at what we accomplished, and learned, from the experience.

Our Eviction Mediation Program and Special Topic

The first focus of the grant was to help us establish a local court mediation program, serving Kane County, Illinois. While it may seem counterintuitive that a project with a focus on national guidance invest in a local program, our approach at RSI is to utilize our mediation programs as “laboratories” for the research and evaluation that is core to our mission. We have a long history of designing and administering programs, and as part of that work, we implement established best practices, set up robust monitoring and evaluation systems, and carefully and thoughtfully test out different approaches to help us achieve the goals we set for our programs. The Kane County Eviction Mediation program is no exception (See related article above), and it served as the basis for many exciting accomplishments of the project, detailed further below.

Our next big milestone was developing the Eviction Mediation Special Topic. Special Topics are collections of resources RSI curates around court alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as it relates to different subject matter (e.g., child protection mediation and restorative justice) or interested parties (e.g., judges and lawyers). For eviction, we sought to develop a Special Topic collection that was both topical to the present crisis and also highlighted the best research, guidance and tools for those invested in the development and administration of effective eviction diversion programs.

Blogs and Evaluation Projects

Throughout the 18 months of the grant, the RSI team was regularly blogging about our experiences developing and administering our programs, and what we were learning from others across the country. A few highlights from our blogging include glimpses into innovative program models in Hawaii and Philadelphia, and program design considerations such as working with rental assistance programs and cultivating buy-in from landlords. Additionally, a pair of Q&As with our Programs Manager Chris Riehlmann and our Kane County Program Coordinator Christina Wright provide a great look into what it really takes to make these program work day in and day out.

Finally, and most significantly, the grant supported several evaluative projects we embarked on over this past year and a half. We analyzed the results of our post-mediation surveys to assess whether our programs were providing procedural justice to participants. After reflecting on the steps we’d taken to develop programs and conducting interviews with key program personnel and partners, RSI published program implementation guides to give others nationwide a manual of sorts for building and tweaking their own programs. The project culminated in an evaluation of the Kane County program’s first 13 months (summarized in the article above by RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack), assessing program use, services provided, mediation outcomes and participant experience.

A Few Key Findings

The amount of information we have learned and done our best to share during the course of this project has been staggering. While any summation is sure to be incomplete, we’d like to leave you with a few key findings from the project:

  1. Integrated and holistic service delivery approaches truly made for better outcomes. Programs that took a comprehensive and progressive approach to combatting eviction saw more agreements and fewer evictions. Similarly, programs that brought more partners to the table, including social service agencies, advocacy groups, state and municipal representatives, and others, saw greater success. While eviction cases are ultimately resolved by courts, the underlying issues are economic and social in nature, and collaboration with entities that address those causes is highly valuable.
     
  2. Good eviction mediations take time. Prior to the pandemic, mediation in housing disputes, in many jurisdictions, was typically an event that took place on the day of the first court appearance and lasted no more than half an hour. Unsurprisingly, agreement rates in this context were generally low. A number of programs we worked with noted that utilizing a model where mediation was done outside of court (and the time constraints that usually entails) resulted in greater agreement. Allotting more time for the session gave greater opportunity to work through impasse, and scheduling mediation for an advance date gave parties the time to better prepare for mediation, including taking stock of finances, asking for support, applying for rental assistance, and consulting attorneys.
     
  3. Remote mediation, which is the norm for RSI’s programs and many others still, continues to offer mixed blessings for participants. The flexibility afforded parties by doing remote mediation meant many more parties could participate without taking a day off work, critical for parties trying desperately to pay back past due rent. On the other hand, our data noted that about 1 in 6 needed to borrow a device or leave home to participate virtually, and 1 in 5 experienced some sort of technical difficulty. Making sure that in-person accommodations could be offered to those who could not or would prefer not to participate virtually ought to be a priority to ensure access, and RSI did so with our Kane County program.

We are tremendously grateful to the AAA-ICDR Foundation for its support of this project.

New RSI Report Sheds Light on Family ODR for Thinly Resourced Parents, Courts and Communities

Susan M. Yates, October 26th, 2022

Do you have a project that you started before the pandemic that you had to put on the back burner in the face of many urgent tasks? I did, but not anymore! I am thrilled to say that RSI’s report, “Family Court Online Dispute Resolution for Thinly Resourced Parents, Courts and Communities: Impediment, Improvement or Impossible Dream?” is now available online.

RSI is very grateful to the JAMS Foundation, whose generous funding made this project possible. We are also thankful to many others who contributed to the project, who you can learn about in the report.

Why RSI Did this Project

Having worked with court mediation in its early years, in recent years I have been witnessing similar responses to court online dispute resolution (ODR). There are proponents who see ODR as a great way to make court systems more accessible, less expensive and quicker. However, some also have significant concerns about issues such as whether ODR will be fair and accessible, who will pay for ODR and what might be lost by relying on technology.

RSI wanted to sort out whether family ODR could improve access to justice for thinly resourced parents who were in court over child-related issues (e.g., parenting time and decision-making), which we know is an area of great need in many jurisdictions. We were especially interested in how family ODR might work in jurisdictions and communities that were also thinly resourced.

Structure of the Project

We created a framework for the project. It is a series of steps – each building on the previous steps – that walks through a process of considering what it would take for family ODR to be accessible, ethical, effective, feasible and sustainable.

To work our way through that framework, we:

  • Conducted research on the literature and the state of court ODR
  • Surveyed state alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and ODR leaders
  • Surveyed 37 national experts working in academia, ADR, court ADR, court administration, family law, funding, intimate partner violence, judging, legal aid, legal technology design, ODR, self-represented litigants and technology
  • Convened those 37 experts three times
  • Drew on RSI’s organizational experience

The data used in the report reflects the status of ODR in 2020. Because the project was already delayed by the pandemic, we decided not to continue to update the report as new programs were developed and new resources became available.

Tensions

Through the above work, we identified three tensions that must be resolved in order for family ODR to serve thinly resourced parents, courts and communities.

1. The desire to serve all parents is in tension with the limitations imposed by the thinly resourced environment explored in the project.

Courts have a responsibility to protect potentially vulnerable parents and ensure ODR is accessible and ethical. However, courts that are thinly resourced are unlikely to be able to provide the full range of services recommended by some experts to ensure ODR is accessible for all parents. The services include, for example, individualized education for each parent about their rights, personalized counseling for each parent about their best options, and one-on-one assistance while using ODR. Indeed, in our experience working with courts, it is likely that these thinly resourced courts would be looking for ways to reduce their costs by implementing ODR, not to increase costs because of a need for additional services to supplement ODR.

To address this tension, a safe tradeoff can be constructed by drawing on a long-established requirement of in-person family mediation. Prior to mediation, each parent must be screened individually to determine if a party has experienced intimate partner violence or other coercive behavior in the relationship that would make participation in a traditional mediation unwise. This need for screening is also true for family ODR.

This screening can be expanded to address the concerns specific to ODR, such as issues related to language, disability or access to the internet. The screener would assist the parents in finding ways to access ODR (e.g., how to involve a translator), would work with them to determine if mandatory participation in ODR is appropriate (e.g., in the case of an insurmountable barrier due to a serious illness or a violent relationship), and would help them access other suitable services when needed.

Screening some parents out of ODR will reduce the number of families that can benefit from ODR. However, it will also help to ensure that ODR is accessible and ethical for the parents who do participate.

2. There is a tension between the need for voluntary decision-making (to help make ODR ethical) and the need for participation (to help make ODR effective).

Neither the literature nor the gathered experts agree on whether mandatory or voluntary participation is inherently better. There is, however, a way to address this tension.

A safe tradeoff can be accomplished — as is sometimes the case with in-person family mediation — by requiring that parents who are not screened out of ODR try an initial ODR step. Because this comes after screening, it avoids requiring parents to use ODR if they are unable to participate in ODR or if they should not participate in ODR for any of a variety of reasons. It also increases the likelihood that a court ODR program will serve enough parents to make it effective by requiring that parents at least try ODR.

3. There is a tension between the cost of accessible, ethical, effective family court ODR and the ability of thinly resourced parents, courts and communities to pay for it.

The project pondered ways to resolve that tension, i.e., how to pay for quality court ODR. In the end, this tension could not be resolved. The project was unable to identify a feasible, sustainable path by which family court ODR could be provided nationwide to parents who need it via courts that cannot afford it.

Recommendations

The report resulted in nine recommendations.

1. Support family ODR
There is a need for family ODR despite the growth in family ODR and the availability of family ADR in some areas. There should be nationwide support for providing family ODR to thinly resourced parents, courts and communities.

2. Develop national standards for family court ODR
National standards for family court ODR should be developed and promoted. They should provide definitions; descriptions; guidance and, potentially, specific measurable criteria. The standards should articulate how to ensure family ODR is accessible, ethical and effective.

3. Consider how to assess whether family court ODR meets the standards
During the development of the standards, the question of how to assess whether court programs and vendors meet the standards should be addressed. For example, who would conduct the assessments? What would be the impact of any finding by the assessment?

4. Ensure every participant has a live conversation with a screener prior to ODR
There are situations in which some parents should not participate in ODR; therefore, every parent should engage in a live telephone or video conversation with a screener prior to using ODR. Together, they should explore whether: there was or is any intimate partner violence in the relationship; they have access to ODR; they are comfortable communicating in a language in which ODR is offered; they are comfortable with ODR technology; they are experiencing any mental illness or substance use issues that prevent them from participating in ODR; and they might need any accommodations as a result of disability.

5. Investigate the potential for a national program to conduct screenings
In many places across the country, parents are not routinely screened prior to family mediation. We see the same practice developing with family ODR. A national program is needed to offer screening that is affordable for thinly resourced parents and courts that cannot afford to pay screeners for ODR.

6. Require every parent who is not screened out of ODR to make an initial attempt to use ODR to identify areas of agreement with the other parent
Requiring parents to attempt to use ODR after screening will provide an ethical combination of screening parents out of, and mandating them into, ODR. It will encourage the maximum number of parents to try ODR, thereby increasing the opportunity for effectiveness, but not require parents who are unsuited to ODR to use it. Parents who do use ODR should not be required to reach agreement using it, but the experience of trying the initial step can also encourage parents to keep using ODR if they find it to be easy to use and helpful.

7. Provide guidance and model materials to courts developing ODR projects
Reliable, curated resources presented in an accessible format can help prevent courts from having to reinvent the ODR wheel. These resources could include, for example, guidance on how to determine what ODR processes and platforms to use, what standards to apply, how to select a vendor and what best practices are. These materials should also include model outreach and educational materials such as text for summonses, websites and communications with parents, as well as videos to which local court information could be added.

Courts also need assistance from experienced, knowledgeable experts to put those resources to work. Courts and communities with the least resources should be actively contacted, made aware of the resources, helped to assess whether there is a need for family ODR in their jurisdiction and, if there is a need, supported as they implement family ODR.

8. Enable courts to assess and improve their family ODR services
ODR platforms generally can provide regular statistical information on how ODR is functioning. Courts may need assistance determining what data they need, working with their vendor to obtain the data, and learning how to draw useful information for reports. Video mediation apps, such as Zoom, do not have built-in reporting mechanisms. Courts using video mediation will therefore need to devise other ways to collect critical data.

Courts also need to ensure parents are experiencing procedural justice when they participate in ODR. For courts using ODR platforms, this will likely require the insertion of surveys into the ODR system or the adaptation of surveys provided as part of the ODR platform. Courts using video mediation will need to survey parties about their mediation experience another way, e.g., by email or text.

Additionally, courts should participate in comprehensive program evaluations when possible. They should share results of these evaluations with other courts and with ODR providers to inform other ODR programs.

9. Investigate the potential for a national family court ODR provider
Although the project did not identify an entity that would be able to establish and sustain a national provider of family ODR, it is still possible that a resource-rich home for family ODR exists somewhere. Individuals and entities that are concerned with services to thinly resourced parents, courts and communities should explore whether there is a deep-pocketed funder who would commit to a multi-year national program.

Conclusion

This project investigated the study question, “How might family court online dispute resolution serve thinly resourced parents, courts and communities?” It found that family court ODR can be an impediment to access to justice if not provided in an appropriate manner. However, if it is provided in a manner that is accessible, ethical and effective, family court ODR can improve access to justice. Doing so will require standards for family court ODR, as well as resources to support the provision and evaluation of ODR. It will also necessitate comprehensive screening conversations with all parents prior to ODR, which will enable courts to require that all parents who are not screened out attempt at least an initial stage of ODR.

In the end, whether family ODR that is accessible, ethical, effective and feasible can be provided nationwide to parents who need it, despite limited family, court and community resources, remains an unanswered question and potentially an impossible dream. There is no clear path to determining how to sustain family court ODR services.

Off the Mainland, Out of the Box: Hawaii’s Innovative Eviction Mediation Program

Eric Slepak-Cherney, September 20th, 2022

This article is part of a series of perspectives on eviction mediation program development that is being supported by the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. The AAA-ICDR’s grant is enabling RSI to expand our outreach to court ADR colleagues working in the fast-evolving eviction field, and we are tremendously grateful to the Foundation for their support.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to learn about a successful and innovative eviction mediation program on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Mediation Center of the Pacific (MCP) Executive Director Tracey Wiltgen generously shared some of her time with me to explain how the program works.

Photo by Jess Loiterton via Pexels

Prior to the pandemic, MCP conducted landlord-tenant mediations on-site in Oahu’s courtrooms. Not atypical of many in-court eviction mediation programs pre-pandemic, parties and mediators were often limited to 20 minutes to mediate their cases. MCP was able to help parties reach agreement in about half of cases, and in about one-fifth of those agreements, the tenant would be able to stay in their home. All things considered, those statistics were pretty impressive.

But in the wake of Hawaii’s eviction moratorium being lifted in August 2021, MCP’s eviction mediation program accomplished some truly remarkable things. In less than a year, it mediated over 1,300 cases and reached agreement in 87% of those. Underlying those successes was a strong foundation upon which MCP built its program.

Making the Most of the Moratorium

The program was developed with the input of many interested parties taken into consideration. Housing advocates and other nonprofit organizations, landlord representatives, Realtors and property managers, legislators and academics all had seats at the table when designing this program. The program was codified into legislation as Act 57, which set forth the procedure and requirements for participation.

Hawaii’s moratorium was lifted in an unconventional tiered system, whereby landlords were allowed to file their cases on a schedule according to how many months of back rent was owed. While landlords were in this holding pattern, they were required to file a notice with MCP of their intent to file their case in court, so that MCP could reach out to tenants and inform them about the process. If the tenant wanted mediation, the landlord would be required to participate. The ability to engage in mediation before the court case was formally filed gave parties more time to explore options, and it helped reduce strain on the court.

Funding Extends Reach

With funding from Act 57, MCP was able to shift from using volunteer mediators to paid ones. The organization recruited 30 mediators from 15 states to mediate these cases remotely. Treating mediators as independent contractors, MCP required that mediators have proficiency in Zoom and generally high levels of digital literacy. This meant that MCP did not have to dedicate staff resources to providing technical support during mediations, or accommodate time-intensive scheduling requests (scheduling was mostly automated through the YouCanBookMe tool). Instead, their case managers were freed up to focus on reaching out to as many parties as they could.

MCP also astutely used the funding from Act 57 to invest in its own internal processes. This included setting up an online portal enabling the landlords to provide the required notice to MCP. The form the landlords filled out fed directly into MCP’s case management system, saving staff lots of time and effort.

Having shifted away from the on-site mediation model, parties were now free to have longer sessions, typically 90 minutes. This no doubt played a role in increasing the agreement rate, allowing parties the space to work through impasses that could not be ironed out in a rapid-fire, 20-minute session.

The joint efforts among mediation programs, alongside rental assistance and legal aid efforts, are central to many eviction diversion initiatives, and the MCP program was no exception. MCP staff and mediators shared a Microsoft Teams workspace with the local rental assistance partner, which enabled them to get real-time updates on the status of an application during a mediation. Legal aid and other service providers worked closely with the mediation program, and referrals between one another were standard procedure.

Unfortunately, Act 57 was a temporary initiative and was not renewed when it expired in August 2022. MCP nonetheless is continuing to offer mediation on a voluntary, prefiling basis to interested parties. MCP’s model provides excellent guidance to courts looking to develop and improve upon their eviction mediation efforts. While moratoria in most places have been lifted, the need for comprehensive eviction solutions has failed to abate as recession, inflation and the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 continue to exacerbate housing issues.

New Reports Describe Successes, Challenges in Launch of Eviction Mediation Programs in Illinois’ Kankakee, Winnebago Counties

Jennifer Shack, September 19th, 2022

This article is part of a series of perspectives on eviction mediation program development that is being supported by the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. The AAA-ICDR’s grant is enabling RSI to expand our outreach to court ADR colleagues working in the fast-evolving eviction field, and we are tremendously grateful to the Foundation for their support.

In late 2021, the 17th Circuit and 21st Circuit courts of Illinois launched eviction mediation programs with RSI assistance. RSI now administers the programs remotely. I had the pleasure of interviewing the judges and program administrators involved in the planning and implementation of the programs. The purpose was to help other courts interested in starting eviction mediation programs by better understanding how the programs work and the challenges and successes they experienced during the planning phase and post-launch. The resulting reports for the 17th Circuit and 21st Circuit are now available.

Photo by eskay lim via Unsplash

Both programs started with the same program design and initially relied on the same program coordinator, who administered the programs remotely with the help of an assistant. For both programs, the program coordinator or the program assistant attended court calls remotely so that when the judge referred cases to the program, they could obtain party contact information and other case details that would help them to administer the program. Parties had access to rental assistance, and mediation was held via Zoom by paid mediators. The programs got off to a slow start but have begun to see more referrals.

17th Circuit Program

The 17th Circuit program, serving Winnebago County, launched in September 2021, but started seeing regular referrals in January. The mediation program was conceived as a partner service to rental assistance.[1] Winnebago County had the benefit of two agencies that could process rental assistance applications quickly and that could have representatives present at the court call. Because rental assistance was readily available to most tenants, the judge decided to refer cases to rental assistance first, then authorize mediation for cases in which the assistance was denied. 

Initially, the program coordinator did not have an easy way to follow up with the tenants to see if they had been approved for rental assistance and whether they wanted to mediate. Seeing an opportunity for the program to do more, the court and RSI decided to have the program coordinator help move tenants through the rental assistance application process. She now follows up with tenants to be sure they have applied for rental assistance and helps get them in contact with a rental assistance agency if not. This helps her to identify cases that need mediation and to schedule them for mediation if the tenants agree to participate.

Lessons Learned

Coordination with program partners may improve buy-in

RSI did not have the staff capacity to take on the role of coordinating program partner communications and needs during program development. According to RSI’s associate director, this resulted in more landlord resistance to the program than in another circuit whose eviction mediation program RSI helped develop. In that program, there was ongoing communication among the program partners, and their perspectives were incorporated into the program rules and process. There, attorneys for landlords and tenants, as well as representatives from the rental assistance agencies and court staff, met regularly before program launch to discuss program development and after the program launched to discuss any issues with the program and its processes.

Communication is essential

The program coordinator and the program assistant both indicated that the open communication with both rental assistance agencies is essential to the smooth running of the program and to ensuring that those who need mediation are offered the opportunity. Communication with the judge is also necessary. The judge initially referred cases to mediation based on a narrow set of criteria. The program coordinator and the program manager have been discussing with the judge the benefits of mediation in other circumstances.

Judge support is key

The judge promotes use of the program both by informing the parties of the resources available to them and strongly encouraging parties to attend mediation.

Tenants need help obtaining rental assistance

Not all tenants are capable of navigating the process of obtaining rental assistance, particularly in the short time frame required by the court’s eviction process. The program coordinator has found that she often needs to explain to tenants what they must do to apply and to follow up to be sure they do so in a timely manner. In addition, she often must explain to tenants what the status of their application is, because they do not always understand their situation.

Good program administration is important

The judge indicated that the program coordinator’s follow-up with tenants about their efforts to obtain rental assistance has helped to move parties through the application process. The program coordinator indicated that this case management has allowed her to identify cases suitable for mediation and has led to more cases being mediated.

It’s helpful to meet with landlords before program launch

The judge noted that outreach to landlords helped to assuage landlords’ fears about the program, reducing resistance to it.

The mediation program may need to evolve

The program may not work the way originally planned, or the original plan may not lead to the most effective provision of services. In this case, the judge’s desire to wait to mediate cases until after rental assistance was denied led to a need to reconfigure the program coordinator’s role.

21st Circuit Program

The 21st Circuit program, serving Kankakee County, launched in December 2021 but saw its first referrals in March 2022. In the 21st Circuit, the reasons for the slow start were complicated. The judge, who was assigned to hear evictions after the program planning phase, was supportive of mediation but had a narrow view of which cases were appropriate. Further, there was no funding for the program during the planning phase, so RSI did not have the staff to engage with stakeholders to get their input and their buy-in. This may have played a role in resistance to mediation among the plaintiff’s bar.

The mediation program was conceived as a partner service to rental assistance,[2] with parties having access to both at the same time. The judge was given the authority by local court rule to order cases to mediation, which she uses when she believes referral to mediation is warranted. Though the court and its partners did not integrate rental assistance with mediation, in practice, the judge refers cases to mediation when she determines the tenants do not know about the resources available to them. The program coordinator has thus taken on the role of helping self-represented tenants, who make up the vast majority of defendants, navigate the rental assistance process. The rental assistance agency has been less involved in the program than the agencies in the 17th Circuit, and has determined that it cannot inform the program coordinator of the status of rental assistance applications due to privacy concerns. This has made it more difficult to help tenants, and mediations often take place without knowledge of whether the tenants have been approved for rental assistance. 

Lessons Learned

Many of the lessons learned were similar to those for the 17th Circuit, but for different reasons.

Coordination with program partners may improve buy-in

Because of a lack of funding during program planning, RSI was understaffed and could not take on the role of coordinating program partner communications and needs. According to the associate director, this resulted in more landlord resistance to the program than in another judicial circuit, in which there was ongoing communication among the program partners and the incorporation of program partner perspectives into the program rules and process.

It helps to remain flexible

The mediation program went through some growing pains, and both the court and the program coordinator needed to figure out how to best work together and to best manage cases. This effort is ongoing but appears to be bearing fruit.

Communication is essential

Lack of communication with the court led to a slow rollout of the program. This has changed as communication has improved. Lack of communication with the rental assistance agency has made it more difficult to assist tenants and to reach agreements in mediation.

Judge support is key

Although the eviction judge came onto the bench after the program had been planned, and therefore needed some time to acclimate to the mediation program, she believes there is a place for mediation in eviction cases. This has led to a greater number of referrals as time has passed.

Good program administration is important

The judge relies on the program coordinator to help tenants navigate resources and to gain access to rental assistance. This has broadened the scope of the position and has required greater case management skills. 


[1] State and federal funds have been made available that provide eligible tenants up to $25,000 to pay past and future rent. The county disburses the funds, which are sent directly to the landlord.

[2] State and federal funds have been made available that provide eligible tenants up to $25,000 to pay past and future rent. The county disburses the funds, which are sent directly to the landlord.

Significant Participation, Agreement Levels Highlight Potential of ODR for Family Cases

Jennifer Shack, August 31st, 2022

University of California, Davis, Professor Donna Shestowsky and I recently had the pleasure of conducting the first neutral evaluation of any family law court online dispute resolution (ODR) program in the United States. The program was launched by the 20th Circuit of Michigan’s Friend of the Court (FOC) in August 2020 with the goal of providing parties with post-judgment family law disputes a simpler, more convenient and cost-effective way to reach agreements related to child custody, parenting time and child support. It also aimed to increase efficiency in the disposition of these matters. By and large, we found that the program was providing the benefits the FOC hoped it would.

What We Studied

The FOC used Matterhorn’s text-based ODR platform, which allows participants to communicate with each other and their caseworker via asynchronous text messages and document exchanges. We used case data, ODR data, pre- and post-process party surveys, and staff interviews to gain insight into:

  • Parties’ expectations for the ODR process at the time it was offered to them, and their views on a video mediation alternative
  • ODR access, including the percentage of parties who participated and opted out, information about ODR available to parties, and parties’ capacity to use ODR
  • Participants’ evaluation of their experience of ODR in terms of procedural justice, satisfaction, fairness of the process, and ability to control the outcome of their matter
  • Parties’ impressions of the FOC and the other party
  • The agreement rates, hearing rates, and efficiency (time to disposition, caseworker time spent on matters) associated with ODR use
  • Direct costs and the FOC’s staff members’ perceptions of the effect of ODR on their work

Excitement and Anxiety

We found that before ODR, parties tended to be confident they could reach agreement, but the majority did not believe the other party would be truthful. They expressed high levels of excitement about using ODR, but also high levels of anxiety. Those who were planning on using it were twice as likely to report a high level of fear of the other party as those who weren’t sure they would, or who were not going to, use ODR.

Because of the platform’s technological limitations, caseworkers did not offer ODR to parties who had attorneys, those who had limited English proficiency, or to those who were blind or visually impaired. In addition, the FOC had decided that those who had a history of a high level of conflict would not benefit from ODR, and they were therefore not offered the opportunity.

Uptake Higher than for Other ODR

Almost half of the parties who were offered the chance to use ODR did so, which was high compared with other early ODR programs, which have had participation rates of 21% to 36%. In half the cases in which ODR was offered but not used, at least one of the parties simply did not register to use it despite the FOC’s intent to require its use. We noted that the emails sent to the parties informing them to register for ODR used language that could have confused the parties both about what the program was and their requirement to participate.  We also found that parties lacked an understanding of the main features of the program. This, too could have reduced program use.

A surprising finding was that almost all parties who used ODR accessed the platform with their mobile phone at least part of the time. Only 8% exclusively accessed the platform with a computer, while 71% only used their mobile phone. This indicates that the platform and any auxiliary activities, such as communications to the parties and agreement forms, must be optimized for phones.

When parties used ODR, they were four times as likely to give high ratings for fairness of the process as those who did not use ODR (50% vs. 12.5%), and twice as likely to give high ratings for satisfaction (50% vs. 25%). They were also much more likely to reach agreement than those who were offered ODR but didn’t use it (59% vs. 11%). In cases involving child support, parties using the online platform reached resolution nearly twice as fast as those who did not.

Positive, with Room for Improvement

Our evaluation indicates that the FOC’s ODR program has provided parties with a positive experience, improves agreement rates and reduces time to resolution for some cases. Program use is high in comparison with other programs.

However, our analysis suggests that the FOC could do more to educate parties about the program, direct parties to use it, and increase access to parties with disabilities as well as those who need an interpreter’s assistance to use the platform. The FOC should also explore ways to reduce access barriers for those identified by caseworkers as less likely to use or benefit from the program because they have lawyer representation or have high-conflict relationships. Attempts to reduce access barriers should also be directed at those who lack digital literacy and those who would use their mobile phone to access the platform. Our evaluation was limited by a small survey and case data sample size, which may have obscured statistical significance of some findings and did not allow us to conduct more detailed analyses of participant experience. We are looking forward to seeing more evaluations of ODR programs conducted, to build on our findings.