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Archive for the ‘Court Mediation Program’ Category

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.  

Rental Relief and Eviction Mediation Work Hand in Hand to Make Housing More Stable

Eric Slepak-Cherney, August 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.

Photo by Kostiantyn Li, via Unsplash

Rental assistance has been a critical component of eviction mediation programs over the past two years. With tenants unable to work for months on end and moratoria on evictions in place, past due rent amounts soared. Conducting mediations in which tenants could not pay landlords much, if any, accumulated rent would not have been fruitful. While mediation in landlord-tenant cases has a long pre-COVID history of success, the sheer number of impacted households and amount of past-due rent threatened to destabilize housing markets and leave millions without a home in the midst of a global health emergency.

The key was rental assistance: Landlords and tenants applied to government programs, which would then make payments to landlords for past-due rent and, in some instances, for a few months in the future.

Across two separate rounds of relief, Congress appropriated over $46 billion in emergency rental assistance. Through June 30, 2022, some $32 billion of that funding had been expended. The relief was allocated to individual states, under the assumption that each state would be best situated to decide how to distribute its allocated funds most effectively. Generally speaking, the states designed their rental assistance programs along a continuum, with one end being central administration by statewide agencies, and the other being delegation of administration to individual municipalities such as cities and counties. Many fell somewhere along the continuum in a hybrid approach.

Timely Processing of Applications a Challenge

The coordination among federal, state and local governments to deliver these services has been a massive undertaking, and certainly not without challenge. An analogous challenge in coordination has arisen between the executive branches of states that are charged with distributing these funds, and the judiciaries that are charged with adjudicating the eviction cases filed in their courts. The interplay between these two, particularly around the speed at which each operates, often determines the reality of whether a tenant can successfully stay in their home.

Using Illinois, where RSI operates several eviction mediation programs, as an example, we saw early on how gaps in coordination were impacting applicants. As cases began to be filed in the wake of our state’s eviction moratorium being lifted in October 2021, the processing time for rental assistance applications was significant. Anecdotally, we heard stories from tenants, landlords and legal aid providers that it wasn’t unusual for applications to take two or three months to be approved. 

Even with many jurisdictions in Illinois electing to continue their eviction cases, some for up to 28 days, the rental application process simply wasn’t going to move fast enough in many cases to change case outcomes. While judges could potentially continue cases to allow for a decision on rental assistance, they also had to balance the needs of the landlord, some of whom had already gone 18 months or longer without collecting rent.

Expediting the Resolution Process

Commendably, our state agencies responded by developing a dedicated Court-Based Rental Assistance Program (CBRAP). This rental relief program is solely for parties to an active eviction court case, and its resolution process has been expedited to stay within the timelines of most courts in the state. The program has been effective at resolving rental assistance applications in a period of three weeks or sooner, meaning that many parties know whether they’ve been approved by the time their case comes back up for their continuance date.

RSI and our fellow mediation centers in Illinois have assisted CBRAP in expediting cases by accepting referrals from the Illinois Housing Development Authority to mediate certain pending rental assistance applications. Typically, these cases are ones in which a rental assistance application has been conditionally approved but the landlord has also secured an eviction order, often from a default judgment. Because the rental assistance terms stipulate that a landlord agrees to not evict for an additional 90 days (the rent is prepaid by the award), the primary focus of these mediations has been to help the parties make sure they both understand the terms of the agreement, including that the landlord will need to vacate the eviction order to receive rental assistance.

Complementary Programs

Our work on CBRAP complements our eviction mediation programs operating in Illinois’ circuit courts. When tenants are evicted and taken to court, our mediation programs are often the first touchpoint for many parties, and thus we make a lot of referrals to rental assistance as part of our intake and triage process.

Illinois’ CBRAP is just one example of many that demonstrate how eviction diversion programs complement and intersect with rental assistance efforts. We’ve previously showcased the Philadelphia eviction diversion program, which innovatively integrated rental assistance directly into the program model itself, and also allowed for pre-filing cases to give parties more time to explore the rental assistance. A recent webinar jointly hosted by the White House and Treasury Department highlighted the significant role eviction diversion programs have played in improving rental assistance delivery. And a forthcoming post on this blog will take a look at the unique and effective approach that was taken in Hawaii on Oahu.

Michigan Mental Health Mediation Program Offers Alternative to Court Intervention

Sandy Wiegand, August 11th, 2022

A new statewide mediation program in Michigan – likely the first of its kind in the United States – offers free mediation as an alternative to court intervention in mental health cases involving individuals who qualify for community mental health services. Michigan Behavioral Health Mediation Services realizes part of the longtime vision of State Court Administrator Emeritus Milton Mack, Jr., who recently spoke with RSI about the program.

Judge Milton Mack, Jr., recently was awarded the 2022 Judge Stephen Goss Lifetime Achievement Award from the Judges and Psychiatrists Leadership Initiative of the Council of State Governments, recognizing his leadership in guiding state courts as they address mental illness in the justice system.

“Typically a family member feels someone needs help, and the person is refusing help,” Judge Mack, who also chairs the Michigan Governor’s Mental Health Diversion Council, explained. “So they go to the courthouse and ask the court to schedule a hearing on ordering this person to get help. What this process does is it says, OK, before we get to the point of the judge ordering you to receive treatment, we’re going to send you into mediation and see if you can work this out without a court order.”

Oakland Mediation Center (OMC), in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, developed the mental health mediation program in partnership with the Michigan Community Mediation Association. It kicked off in September 2021 and is funded by a grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. OMC connects participants with their local community dispute resolution center for mediation. In addition to the subject of the mediation, the petitioner and the (volunteer) mediator, participants may include the subject’s attorney and community mental health providers. Mediators for the program complete advanced behavioral health-specific mediation training, as well as Michigan’s usual state-required mediation training.

Legislation Facilitated Changes

Changes to Michigan law in 2018 helped make mediation an option, said Judge Mack, who first advocated for mental health mediation in 2004, as a member of the Governor’s Mental Health Commission. Under the prior statute, a judge couldn’t order a person to outpatient treatment until they had been involuntarily hospitalized twice or incarcerated twice, by which point their illness had progressed significantly. Additionally, a trial had to be scheduled within seven days of a petition being filed, which left little time to schedule mediation. Under the new law, a family member can petition the court to order an individual to undergo outpatient treatment, and a hearing must be scheduled within 28 days – a much more realistic timeline for scheduling mediation. Furthermore, Judge Mack said, this earlier intervention makes it more likely that people get treatment in community, and do so while able to function at a higher level than if treatment waited.

“Getting in early is your greatest opportunity,” said Judge Mack. “When you’re in a psychotic state, you’re steadily going downhill … The longer you wait, the harder it is to get back to baseline.”

So far, the program has mediated five mental health cases, with three reaching resolution and a fourth reaching partial resolution. Petitioners cannot request mediation; only the subject of the mediation or their attorney may do so.

New Ground for Courts

Buy-in has been a challenge, Judge Mack said, because the concept of mental health mediation is very unfamiliar territory for courts. As one way to overcome this, he will be leading trainings for attorneys on the program in mid-August, starting in Wayne County, Michigan, where he was previously a probate judge. A longtime proponent of mediation for cases of all types, he said attorneys will be instructed to request mediation in eligible mental health cases as a rule, noting: “When I instruct the lawyers next week, I am going to explain to them: One of your duties is, when you get this assignment, you immediately consider requesting mediation; that is the expectation of the court.”

While acknowledging that for other states to replicate this program they might need to enact legislation, Judge Mack’s advice to courts in the meantime is that they look for situations where the timeframe is not an impediment to mediation. Additionally, he suggested, “I would say watch us here in Michigan prove the concept. Our process of having a system of early intervention and keeping people out of the hospital I think has got promise.”

Mediation Offers Lifeline for Communities Being Inundated by Flood of Evictions

Eric Slepak-Cherney, June 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.

More than two years since COVID-19 first broke out stateside, the U.S. housing sector remains in a state of flux. Various moratoria and relief funds at the federal, state, and local levels notwithstanding, courts throughout the country have been awash in eviction filings for some time now. For many communities, while there might be some ebb and flow from month to month, it’s increasingly looking like the new normal is a sustained level of increased activity. 

When we last saw a comparable crisis in the 2008 mortgage foreclosure crisis, inundated courts turned to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as a means to better triage and more expeditiously resolve cases. Many of these mediation programs were able to leverage pro bono legal assistance and housing counseling services to provide holistic support to parties and increase the odds of finding a resolution. Looking at courts across the country, we can see an analogous process unfolding in real time as a response to this present-day eviction crisis. A critical distinction is that where the typical judicial foreclosure process is one that operates in months and sometimes years, eviction is a process that can conclude within a few weeks—and sometimes less. 

That context underscores the urgency with which courts have had to address this issue. At Resolution Systems Institute (RSI), a nonprofit that has spent the last 25-plus years helping courts better utilize ADR, we have taken a two-prong approach to the eviction crisis. First, we have established a number of eviction mediation programs in northern Illinois to serve the communities there and to act as models that can be replicated by other jurisdictions. Second, we are studying these model programs and providing guidance to other courts looking to implement or improve their own eviction mediation efforts. 

On the Front Lines

Operating programs in three Illinois jurisdictions—which, combined, serve nearly a million residents across Kane, Kankakee, and Winnebago Counties—has provided RSI an opportunity to apply our evolving knowledge of best practices to better serve communities in distress. Lessons learned from other programs regarding housing disputes, the integrated role of support services in these cases, and how to administer all of these in an increasingly online world were all critical to us in finding our footing for this program. 

In most instances, services in our programs are accessed remotely. Court calls still take place over Zoom, though the courts do offer physical access at the courthouse for those parties who need or prefer it. Our staff and other program partners attend these court calls to educate parties about mediation at their first appearance and obtain contact information. Program staff then connects with them individually via email or telephone after court to give each party the time they require to feel heard and for our staff to properly collect all vital information. 

During intake, our staff assesses what services parties might benefit from, whether that entails legal assistance, information about rental relief funds, or help finding alternative housing, among others. Our mediation program refers people to appropriate service providers, scheduling mediation a few weeks later to provide time to take advantage of the other services. The goal is to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that parties are fully informed by the time they sit down to have their dispute mediated. Avoiding eviction is the top goal whenever possible, but sometimes that’s just not workable. What we can ensure, however, is that both parties experience a process in which their concerns were heard and they were treated fairly.

Participation in the program is mandatory for landlords if the tenant wishes to participate, and the judges may (and often do) order parties to participate. Judicial buy-in is key to almost any successful court ADR program, and eviction mediation is no exception. We cultivate that buy-in from the program’s outset, collaborating with eviction judges and court administration. We also include other program partners in the development of program procedures and local court rules. At the same time, we work to secure funding and staff up. Experience has taught us again and again that proper program management requires adequate resources to keep operations running effectively. 

Another component of successful administration is regular program partner meetings to provide updates on program processes and troubleshoot any potential issues. Such meetings are exceptionally critical in the cross-disciplinary context of evictions. The court and the mediation program are two big parts of the eviction process, but having housing counselors/advocates, legal aid, representatives for landlords and their attorneys, and sometimes municipal representatives speak to their perspectives has been instrumental to us in designing a process that works for all. 

We have been highly encouraged by the results of these efforts to date. Since Illinois lifted its moratorium on residential evictions on October 3, 2021, our programs have enrolled over 600 cases. Our programs have mediated 420 disputes, with 269 (64 percent) reaching partial or full agreement. These agreements span a wide array of outcomes, from allowing a tenant to keep his or her apartment, to negotiating a mutually agreeable move-out date, to working out payment plans for back rent owed. 

After each mediation session, parties are invited to complete a survey about their experience in mediation. Eighty-three percent of respondents believe mediation is a fair process; 78 percent of respondents strongly agree with the statement “I was able to express what was important to me.” One tenant commented that they were able to “leave [mediation] with some peace of mind.” An attorney representing a landlord commented, “Mediation has the ability to resolve the case with limited expense to the parties and resolve it more expeditiously.” In all, 70 percent of respondents would highly recommend mediation to a friend or colleague. (For those interested in reading further, we publish the stats on our surveys quarterly.)

Viewed together, the data about both the outcomes we achieve and the participant experience in mediation indicate we are on the right track, while also giving us some targeted data about where we have room for improvement. Resolution Systems Institute is grateful to the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation for funding that supports our mediation services in northern Illinois. 

Empowering Courts Nationwide

Our experience operating programs in Illinois, combined with years of experience monitoring and evaluating court ADR programs, has provided tremendous insight into how to successfully operate such programs. Now we are taking what we are learning and sharing it with others through our publications, website, blog, newsletter, and social media. RSI is grateful to the American Arbitration Association–International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation for underwriting our efforts to develop and share these resources with a nationwide audience. 

For example, our Eviction Mediation Special Topic was developed as a one-stop shop for courts seeking information on the subject. This Special Topic resource contains practical guidance about designing eviction mediation programs and setting up data collection systems. We have also provided sample court rules, forms, party surveys, and other materials. Individuals can also find a reading list of what we believe to be the best resources on eviction mediation.

With regard to evaluation, we recently published a program implementation report, Eviction Mediation Design and Implementation in Illinois’ 16th Judicial Circuit: Challenges and Keys to Success (Apr. 2022), that examined the design and development process in our Kane County program. This unique resource provides courts a detailed overview of how a real court ADR program was developed, including the steps and time frames involved. The report’s key findings identify five critical factors:

  • Court interest in the project
  • Judge support
  • Landlord/landlord attorney buy-in
  • Good communication among involved organizations
  • Good administration

These findings are supported by hours of interviews among key personnel involved in the program’s development. In future months, we will be publishing an implementation report concerning our other two programs, which will focus on the challenges and successes in developing a mediation program that is staffed fully by remote employees.

Conclusion

We hope that the resources RSI has provided thus far and those that are forthcoming can empower courts to design stronger alternatives to the traditional eviction process. Renters and landlords alike have navigated tremendous uncertainty over the last couple years. As evictions remain high, courts and communities can turn to RSI’s experience and guidance to assist in meeting the demand for fair, prompt services. We would also like to recognize the American Bar Association COVID-19 Task Force’s Eviction Committee and the ABA Dispute Resolution Section’s Task Force on Evictions for their work in addressing these issues. 

This article was originally published, under the title “Mediation Offers Lifeline for Communities Awash in Evictions,” in the American Bar Association Litigation Section Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee newsletter, Spring 2022 edition, Volume 26, Issue 3. Copyright © 2022, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Litigation Section, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

Limited Participation Reduces Success of Otherwise Promising Texas Pilot ODR Program, Evaluation Finds

Just Court ADR, May 31st, 2022

A newly published study conducted by RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack and University of California, Davis, Professor Donna Shestowsky highlights both the potential of online dispute resolution (ODR) and the importance of appropriate outreach and education on ODR to maximize participation and, thus, program impact.

Jen and Donna evaluated a pilot program in Collin County, Texas, that used a text-based ODR platform to resolve debt and small claims cases in a single court. By adopting ODR, the court sought to reduce the burden of a growing caseload while providing access to justice through a process that did not require the parties to travel or miss work to resolve their case.

The evaluation produced evidence that ODR can be an effective method of dispute resolution, especially for debt cases. In 73% of cases where both parties used the ODR platform, participants resolved their dispute and avoided trial. The rate is similar to that of cases that had the opportunity to use in-person mediation. Unfortunately, however, the program’s goals were not met, because both sides used ODR in only 24% of cases uploaded to the platform. Findings and recommendations related to these outcomes are discussed later in this summary.

The Pilot Program

The pilot ran from September 2019 through August 2020; thus it was concurrent with the COVID-19 pandemic from March to August 2020. Additionally, because ODR is a rather new practice in this context, some details of the program and the platform’s application were being worked out even as the evaluation took place.

The Modria ODR platform allowed parties to communicate by text one-on-one or with the help of a mediator. Parties were ostensibly required to use the platform before their first hearing. If parties reached agreement, their case was dismissed without a trial. During the 12-month pilot period, 1,874 debt and 274 small claims cases were filed, for a total of 2,148 cases.

When a defendant filed an answer, the civil clerk determined whether the case was eligible for ODR. It was ineligible if one side had multiple parties, if a party was not equipped to use ODR, or (until the second quarter of 2020) if the court did not have email addresses for both parties or their attorneys. If the case was eligible, the clerk uploaded it to the ODR platform, which in turn rejected any cases that contained errors, such as missing information, and sent an error report to the IT department so the errors could be fixed. When email addresses and phone numbers were available, the platform sent an automated email (and after April 2020, also a text) to the parties, instructing them to use ODR. The clerk also set the case for trial and mailed the parties, or their attorneys, a notice of their trial date and informed them they were required to use ODR prior to that date. The notice included a link to the platform.

Once a case was uploaded to ODR, participants had 45 days to negotiate one-on-one via the platform’s chat function. At any time during this window, either side could ask for a mediator. Mediation cost each party $40 and had to be completed within 30 days.

If participants reached agreement on the platform, they were given the opportunity to sign an online agreed judgment form, which was automatically sent to the case management system, and the trial was cancelled. If the participants did not reach agreement, the parties continued to trial unless they otherwise reached agreement before the trial date.

Key Findings

Below are some of Jen and Donna’s main findings and top recommendations from their evaluation. For more details and complete recommendations, read the full report here.

Litigant Use of ODR

  • 49% of cases with answers filed were uploaded to ODR. During the pilot period, answers were filed in 698 cases. These 698 cases form the subset that could potentially have been uploaded to ODR. Of these, 341 cases (49%) were eligible and did not contain errors that barred their upload. These were ultimately offered ODR. According to court staff, the most common reason that cases with answers filed were not uploaded to ODR appears to be that the court lacked email addresses for at least one side of the case.
  • One party completed at least one activity online in 50% of cases uploaded to ODR. In 170 of 341 cases (50%), at least one case participant performed at least one activity on the ODR platform, such as asserting a claim, uploading a file, or using the chat function to communicate with the other side.
  • Both sides completed at least one activity on the ODR platform in about one-fourth of eligible cases. In 81 cases (24%) uploaded to ODR, both sides used the platform. Parties in small claims cases were more likely to use ODR (76%) than parties in debt claim cases (45%).
  • Litigants appeared to be unaware of the ODR program. Litigant survey responses suggested that parties were generally not aware of the ODR program, despite participation being required. Only one survey respondent out of ten indicated having received information about the program. When asked what would make them more likely to use ODR for a similar case in the future, half said more information.
  • Litigants had limited access to information about the ODR program. According to court staff, the only ways litigants received information from the court about the ODR program was through the notice the court mailed to them (or their lawyers) about their court date and through an email or text from the platform when the court uploaded their case, if their side had an email address or cellphone number on file with the court. Both of these events occurred only after the defendant filed an answer.
  • Litigants appear open to online options. Among survey respondents, none of whom had participated in ODR, two out of three indicated that the option to use it in future similar cases was attractive. Similarly, when asked to consider using video mediation to resolve future similar cases, 60% responded favorably. 

Outcomes and Time to Disposition

  • 73% of cases in which both parties used ODR resolved before trial. The percentage of ODR cases that resolved before trial was similar to that of cases that did not use ODR, both before and during the ODR program.
  • Debt claim cases were significantly more likely than small claims cases to resolve before trial. Additionally, debt claim cases in which defendants were represented were significantly more likely to resolve before trial than debt claim cases in which defendants were unrepresented.
  • Time to resolution was, on average, 4.6 months for cases that used ODR. This figure includes cases delayed either because of the court’s closure amid the COVID-19 pandemic or because of an upload error on a court server.

Program Costs

It is important to note that workload and cost conclusions are derived from self-reports made during interviews and are inherently subjective.

  • Direct costs to the court to implement ODR were covered by a filing fee. Litigants covered the costs through an extra $5 filing fee the court instituted for all civil cases filed in Collin County except eviction and mental health cases.
  • There were significant indirect costs to the court. Court personnel indicated that they devoted a significant amount of time to ODR prior to its launch. The project manager estimated that the cost in staff time approached six figures and was largely due, in his opinion, to the numerous meetings that involved many court personnel as well as the high percentage of time that he and the responsible IT staff member spent on the project in this phase. Some of this effort laid the groundwork for an anticipated county-wide rollout of ODR.
  • Costs to administer ODR were minimal. After the program’s launch, the time that personnel spent on ODR appeared to drop considerably. No one interviewed reported spending more than a couple of hours per week on the project.
  • ODR did not appreciably change administrative workload. The court administrator and the civil clerk did not perceive an appreciable increase or decrease in their workload. However, it is hard to determine what their workload may have been in the absence of the COVID-19 pandemic, or how much it would have been had greater effort been expended on promoting litigants’ awareness of the program and otherwise attempting to increase ODR use.

Recommendations

Based on the findings of this evaluation, the following recommendations may be relevant for any court considering implementing ODR:

  • Expect to spend significant time and resources to get the program up and running.
  • Notify parties and lawyers about the ODR program early in the process.
  • Educate litigants and lawyers more fully about the program.
  • Conduct outreach to raise awareness of, and promote interest in, the ODR program.
  • Explore video mediation as a dispute resolution option.