RSI recently held a series of online gatherings to explore the use of online dispute resolution (“ODR”) to serve thinly-resourced families, courts and communities with regards to developing parenting plans (or revising them in post-decree cases) for divorcing or separating never-married parents. These events were the culmination of a National Convening of Experts on Family ODR underwritten by the JAMS Foundation. As part of this project, we brought together experts from across the country and across multiple disciplines, conducted surveys of both these experts and court administrators nationwide, and facilitated discussion on a myriad of issues during the course of the Convening. Our findings will serve as the basis of a forthcoming report, which RSI expects to publish in by the end of 2020.
Our first step in this process was to collect existing research and data about family ODR. ODR is still relatively in its infancy and its application in resolving disputes around parental responsibilities even more nascent. At the time of writing this, there were five such family court programs operating nationwide and no data on outcomes as of yet has been made available.
We saw this as an opportunity to investigate the level of need and barriers to developing these programs nationwide. RSI sent out surveys to court ADR administrators across the country, and in all, received responses from individuals in 23 states and Washington, D.C. For more about our findings from this research, see this recent blog post from Director of Research Jennifer Shack.
A priority for this project was to facilitate dialogue among key stakeholders and thought leaders. We assembled a coalition of nearly 40 experts, comprising family lawyers, ADR practitioners, judges, court administrators, legal technology and ODR experts, legal aid attorneys, academics and funders. These experts provided us thoughtful insight into the benefits and concerns they have regarding the use of ODR in this field and for this underserved population.
Based on the expert responses and guidance from other research, particularly the International Council on Online Dispute Resolution Standards, we developed a framework for how we would explore the topic during the Convening and in our report. To ensure that courts are providing family ODR that serves stakeholders who are thinly-resourced (a term that acknowledges not just financial poverty, but lack of access to education, technology, infrastructure and other resources), a program must possess five essential characteristics: accessibility, ethicality, effectiveness, feasibility and sustainability. If a family ODR program – which entails not just the technological component, but also the dispute system design, human resources and interaction with the court – misses out on these characteristics, it runs the risk of either failing entirely, or perhaps even worse, widening the disparity in outcomes between thinly-resourced litigants and those with means.
Over the course of three 90-minute sessions we explored how family ODR programs could embody these characteristics, including identifying essential features that would need to be built into the programs. The experts were broken into new groups of four or five for each characteristic, maximizing the cross-pollination among professionals from different backgrounds. Each group explored the characteristic, prompted by a different guiding question for each group, and a facilitator captured the thinking of the group. For example, when the groups explored ethics (which we defined very broadly), they considered confidentiality, data security, fairness, procedural justice, information and education, informed consent, neutrality and impartiality, safety and transparency.
A number of themes emerged throughout the course of the event. Access to a device with which to participate in ODR and access to the internet were significant concerns, as were concerns about potential barriers caused by disabilities or limited English proficiency. One big focus was on the risk posed to survivors of intimate partner violence; on the one hand, the remote nature of ODR might empower some, but the threat of coercion when participating in an ODR process that relies on self-determination could pose a huge risk. Another theme to emerge was the decision of whether to make programs opt-in or opt-out, and gaining clarity about what that really means. ODR programs nationwide have reported struggles with participation and volume, and the balance of getting people to try the platform and respecting their self-determination weighed heavy for the experts. The gatherings also tackled how family ODR for thinly-resourced parents, courts and communities could be supported financially and where it might be hosted.
Reaction to the Convening was overwhelmingly positive. The experts appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with one another, particularly with individuals they might not have met otherwise, and dive into nuanced, detail-oriented discussions about particular features of family ODR. We at RSI are immensely grateful to the JAMS Foundation for enabling us to have this opportunity to move the ball on an issue we find very near and dear to our hearts and mission!