Resources / Study / Innovation for Court ADR

Just Court ADR

The blog of Resolution Systems Institute

Archive for the ‘Online Dispute Resolution’ Category

New York Court Launches ODR Pilot Program for Small Claims Cases

Nicole Wilmet, February 26th, 2021

In January, Manhattan’s Civil Court launched an online dispute resolution (ODR) pilot program for small claims cases. The program is designed to assist self-represented parties and eligible cases include disputes regarding the purchase or sale of goods or services up to $10,000. Cases meeting these criteria will automatically be referred to the program and then be screened for eligibility. If eligible, parties will have the opportunity to negotiate through the platform to resolve their dispute.

New York’s new program uses the Matterhorn platform and is free for parties. In a press release for the program, the court indicates that the new ODR platform will lead parties through an “automated double-blind bidding process, in which each party makes an offer that may only be disclosed after both offers match [and] depending on the outcome.” In this helpful video, the court explains what this process looks like in practice. As the video explains, once on the platform, both parties will be invited to submit a proposed settlement amount. In the example from the video, if one party submits a settlement amount for $800 and the other party presents a settlement amount for $200, then the program will use the overlap between these two amounts and split the difference in half (ex: $500). From there, the platform will present this amount to the parties as a proposed solution. If the parties are able to agree to the proposed amount, the platform will then guide the parties through negotiating the other terms of the settlement.

In the event parties are unable to reach an agreement, the ODR platform will then present several other resolution options to the parties. First, the platform will give parties the opportunity to communicate with each other through a chat interface to see if they are able to reach a settlement. Second, if the parties are still unable to reach agreement, they will be given the option to work with a mediator. Finally, if the parties do not want to proceed with chat and mediation, or were unable to reach an agreement in mediation, parties will then have the option to proceed to court. For additional information about the program, visit the program’s website or contact the Civil Court of the City of New York by phone at 646-386-5484.

Research Year in Review

Jennifer Shack, December 18th, 2020

The past year we focused on research that related to the times we’ve been experiencing. With courts going online and an expected surge in evictions on the horizon, I turned my attention to those topics, summarizing research on online dispute resolution (ODR) and presenting outcomes from housing mediation programs. 

Online Dispute Resolution

In March, I rounded up the research to date on ODR. A study in the Netherlands found that participants in ODR for divorcing couples perceived the process to be fair, with procedural fairness, interpersonal justice and informational justice all given high marks. On a scale of 1 to 5, they had averages of 4.27, 4.5 and 4.19, respectively. The participants’ perception of the outcome was also positive, though to a lesser extent than for the procedure. They gave an average of 3.91 for distributive justice, 3.37 for restorative justice, 3.18 for functionality and 3.0 for transparency.

A small study of a pilot small claims ODR program had less positive results. It found that 47% of cases reached agreement. The 18 parties who responded to a survey had some issues with the technology, with only 47% saying the technology was easy to use. In addition, only 53% were satisfied with their experience and only 23% felt the outcome was fair.

In the round up, I also summarized research about the potential advantages and disadvantages of using video-based and text-based ODR in cases with a history of intimate partner violence or abuse (IPV/A). The researchers suggest that mediators on IPV/A cases must carefully consider a variety of potential issues including the parties’ suspicion of mediator bias, confidentiality concerns, and victim-perpetrator power dynamics. 

While others in 2020 wrote about the possibilities for ODR, Jean Sternlight examined some of its weaknesses. Her article explored online dispute resolution (ODR) through the lens of the psychology of dispute resolution, focusing on four different areas: the psychology of perception and memory, the psychology of human wants, the psychology of communication, and judgment and decision making. She concluded that ODR may not be the best tool to assist individuals in creatively working things out with a fellow disputant and may be better employed for small and predictable disputes, like small online purchases.

An RSI survey found that the COVID pandemic has led most states to adopt video mediation for family cases. Others are moving forward with formal ODR platforms. Despite the increased availability of online services, almost half of the states that responded to the survey said there was an unmet need for family ODR and that funding was the main requirement for meeting that need. 

During the past year, we also learned about how to design ODR platforms from a study of Utah’s small claims platform, and were given tips on researching the impact of ODR on access to justice. 

Eviction Mediation

Two articles published in this year discussed programs in Minnesota and Missouri to help landlords and tenants avoid eviction. The results of these programs indicate that they help keep evictions off tenant credit histories and reduce forcible evictions. 

In St. Paul, Minnesota, the court instituted multiple changes to its housing court, including expanding access to mediation and making it, along with financial and legal resources, available at the court during eviction hearings. After a year and a half, the court’s numbers appear to show an improvement in outcomes. The court has a goal of reducing evictions by 50% in five years. In the first 18 months, evictions declined by 8%, to the lowest eviction rate in 10 years. Settlements increased by 5%, to the highest rate in five years. The impact was highest on expungements, which doubled. On the other end, fears of increased trial numbers and longer court calls didn’t come true. The number of trials as a proportion of cases declined and court call length increased by 10 minutes on average.

In St. Louis, in a voluntary program for cases in which neither landlord nor tenant is represented, 71% of mediated cases resulted in a settlement in 2018. The terms of more than half of these agreements were completed, resulting in a dismissal. One-third of agreements resulted in a consent judgment for eviction against the tenant and 25% resulted in the sheriff executing the judgment through forcible removal of the tenant. Cases that went to trial, on the other hand, were significantly more likely to end in eviction. Consent judgments were entered against tenants in 92% of these cases and resulted in forcible removal in 40%. The authors extrapolate from that data that 279 families avoided eviction in 2018 by settling in mediation and completing the terms of their agreement rather than going to trial.

Family ADR

Studies of family ADR programs continue to demonstrate the benefits of helping parents to resolve their issues outside of court. 

In Anchorage, Alaska, an Early Resolution Program (ERP) for family cases reduced time to resolution, reduced staff time spent on cases and had no impact on the number of post-disposition motions to modify, according to a recently completed evaluation. The study found that 80% of the parties who participated in ERP reached agreement in a three-hour hearing. Unsurprisingly, ERP cases reached disposition more quickly, with a median of 42 days as compared to a median of 104 for cases in the control group. The program also led to significant time savings for staff. For cases undergoing ERP, there were 28 to 30 processing steps, taking a total of 240 minutes (4 hours). The number of steps for the average non-ERP case was 49, taking a total of 1,047 minutes (17.45 hours).

study of parenting time mediation in Massachusetts found multiple benefits for parents and families. In surveys, parents said that conflict between them and the other parent was diminished in about 2/3 of the mediations. This benefit appeared to last for weeks after mediation for many parents, as 53% of those who were interviewed said that conflict continued to be reduced. Similarly, more than 2/3 of surveyed parents reported greater civility between them and the other parent. Again, this benefit remained over time, with 50% saying that they and the other parent treated each other with greater civility. Most parents also said that their communication had improved, with 72% of those surveyed saying so and 54% of those interviewed weeks later agreeing.  

Litigant Perception Research

Litigant attendance at a dispute resolution process impacts their assessment of the fairness of that process, according to research conducted by Donna Shestowsky. Shestowsky found that when litigants attended a settlement procedure used to resolve their case, they rated that procedure as fairer than those litigants who attended an adjudicative procedure. However, when litigants did not attend the procedure used to resolve their case, they saw settlement and adjudicative procedures as similarly fair. When comparing attendance within procedures, she found that attendance did not affect fairness ratings for settlement procedures, but that those who attended an adjudicative procedure rated the procedure as less fair than those who did not attend the procedure.

I wish you all a happy, safe and healthy holiday season!

Recently Added Resources to RSI’s Research Library

Nicole Wilmet, November 4th, 2020

Did you know that RSI’s Resource Center is the most comprehensive and respected source of information on court ADR anywhere? Housed within the Resource Center is the Research Library which has an extensive annotated collection of court ADR resources such as articles, studies, court rules, statutes and court forms.

Each month I review and add new resources to the Research Library. The following list highlights a few of the resources that have recently been added.

I hope these resources are helpful to you in your work!

RSI Convenes Experts to Explore Access to Justice in Family ODR

Eric Slepak-Cherney, November 3rd, 2020

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!

Survey of States Points to Widespread Unmet Need for Family ADR and ODR

Jennifer Shack, November 2nd, 2020

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.

Background

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. 

Findings

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.  

Conclusion

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.