Resolution Systems Institute recently surveyed state court and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) administrators to gather information about the status of family mediation and family online dispute resolution in their states. The survey was part of a larger project, funded by the JAMS Foundation, we are doing that explores the potential for online dispute resolution (ODR) to help thinly-resourced parents to resolve their disputes, particularly in courts and communities that also have limited resources. The purpose of the survey was to understand the landscape of family ADR and ODR in the states, to learn about their efforts to provide ODR and, for those who had implemented ODR, to gain insights from their experience.
The survey responses tell the story of the haves and have-nots. Some states have everything in hand when it comes to ADR, but about half of those who responded see an unmet need for both in-person and online services. They lack the funding and resources to make this happen. Their responses, too, indicate that they are interested in providing greater access to services.
To prepare to distribute the survey, we conducted an exhaustive search for a contact person within the state court administrative office in each state. For those states for which we couldn’t find a contact person, we attempted to locate someone else within the state who would have knowledge of the statewide status of ADR and ODR. In the end, we sent surveys to 36 states and Washington, DC, of which 33 were to statewide court or ADR administrators. People from 24 states and Washington, DC, completed the survey. The responses are skewed toward those with statewide ADR offices, as 14 of the 23 states represented in the survey, as well as DC, have statewide ADR offices. This is 62% of the respondents. In contrast, of the total possible sample of states (and DC), only 39% (20 of 51) have ADR offices.
For the survey, we defined ODR broadly as both video-conference mediation like Zoom and formal ODR platforms like Modria or Matterhorn. We also asked the respondents to concentrate on family dispute resolution for parents and courts with limited resources. That is, for parents who are not able to pay for dispute resolution services and courts that lack the resources to provide these services at no cost.
All but two of the responding states have at least one staff person dedicated to ADR part-time. However, having an ADR office makes it more likely that the state court administrative office has full-time staff dedicated to ADR. Ten of the 15 states with an ADR office have at least one full-time person dedicated to ADR; only three of the ten states without an ADR office have full-time staff dedicated to ADR.
In the majority of represented states, the state provides some form of funding. However, these states range from minimally supporting to fully supporting ADR for court users. As with staffing, those states with ADR offices are more likely to provide some support for ADR programs. All but one of these fund ADR in some way, with ten providing ongoing funding. In contrast, only six of the ten states without ADR offices provide any funding for ADR in the courts. Of these, two provide ongoing support.
Face-to-face (or in-person) mediation is available in all states represented in the survey, although it is available statewide in only 63% of them. With the need to adjust to COVID-19, states have made the switch to video-conference mediation, with almost half providing this statewide. Text-based platforms are much less widely used. Only seven states have such a service, and none has made it available statewide.
While face-to-face mediation is available in all states, more than half of the respondents said there was an unmet need for mediation in their state for parents with limited resources. Most of these said they lacked the funding and mediators necessary to meet that need. More than half said they required stakeholder buy-in and about half said leadership was needed.
Almost all states have either implemented ODR statewide (in the form of video-conference mediation like Zoom) or are in the process of implementing it. The two most common reasons for pursuing ODR are to increase access to justice and to respond to the restrictions placed on in-person services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding appears to be the tricky spot for them, with eight respondents saying either they have yet to figure out funding for long-term maintenance or that individual courts were going to have to figure it out.
Despite the increased availability of online services, almost half of the respondents said there was an unmet need for family ODR, with another third saying that they weren’t sure about the need for ODR in their state. Those who said there was an unmet need said that to meet that need their state needed funding, staff time and technical support, followed closely by leadership, stakeholder buy-in and mediators.
While both in-person and video mediation are widely available in the responding states, more than half of the respondents see a need for greater resources to provide access to dispute resolution services to parents with limited resources. In all, most of the respondents held a positive view of ODR and its role in providing dispute resolution to parents and areas that are not well served by mediation. This is evident in the relatively widespread adoption of video-conference mediation.