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Rethinking Party Safety in Online Mediation

Dee Williams, January 19th, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to online mediation becoming far more common in family cases than it was previously. This shift from in-person to video mediation has both benefits and potential pitfalls when it comes to participant safety, as discussed in a recent article by Erin R. Archerd.

In her Winter 2022 Stetson Law Review article, “Online Mediation and the Opportunity to Rethink Safety in Mediation,” Archerd describes some of the security benefits and challenges of mediating online, recommends steps mediators can take to enhance party security in online mediation, and calls for a more expansive conception of safety for mediations in general.

Photo by Liza Summer via Pexels

Some observers argue that online mediation can be safer than mediating in person because of the physical distance between the parties. Archerd acknowledges this benefit, but also sees a downside. She notes that when mediating in person, a mediator can personally ensure that the room has safe exit routes for all parties in case of a confrontation and that the mediation is not observed or interrupted by an unauthorized party. Such assurances are more difficult online. Additionally, Archerd states that interacting via camera also entails the loss of some of the nonverbal cues that mediators might normally use to assess parties’ senses of safety. To make up for this, she suggests that — once screening for impediments has been completed and the mediator and parties decide to go forward with­ mediation — mediators hold private pre-mediation sessions with each party. During such a meeting, the mediator can go over the security of the parties’ mediation locations, make sure they will be in a safe and appropriately private environment during the mediation, and establish ways to communicate if the party is being watched or intimidated from off-screen. Mediators can do something similar on the day of mediation by holding a private session with each party prior to joint session to ask them to describe their space and ask whether they feel they can safely complete the mediation process.

Maintaining confidentiality in an online mediation also requires more work, since mediators are not able to monitor all aspects of the space in the same way. Archerd recommends that mediation agreements make it clear that unauthorized parties should not be present at the mediation. In addition, mediators should communicate with parties in advance about how to ensure privacy in their mediation locations. At the start of the mediation session, mediators should confirm with parties that they are not recording and that no unacknowledged parties are present. Another aspect of safety is the long-term well-being of participants: Mediators conducting mediations online need to be sure they are well connected to “wraparound services” such as domestic violence or special education resources. Archerd notes that lack of access to in-person meetings can hamper feedback that would otherwise be received about the overall well-being of parties, and greater effort to connect parties to required services may be beneficial in online mediation environments.

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.

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.  

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.

Q&A Highlights Importance of RSI/UC Davis Research on Procedural Justice in ODR

Susan M. Yates, June 28th, 2021

The Pew Charitable Trusts has published a Q&A with Professor Donna Shestowsky of the UC Davis School of Law about the empirical study of online dispute resolution (ODR) that the law school and Resolution Systems Institute are conducting, which looks at court ODR programs in Michigan and Texas. The Q&A explores procedural justice, an integral element of the study.

RSI’s Director of Research, Jennifer Shack, and Professor Shestowsky are working with the Pew Charitable Trusts to evaluate online platforms that courts are using to assist parties in engaging in mediation and negotiation. RSI and UC Davis are one of three research teams involved in a larger project initiated by Pew to empirically study issues surrounding the provision of ODR by courts and its effects.

While these platforms could offer benefits, such as eliminating the need for some parties to appear in person for a trial, the study looks at possible drawbacks as well. In addition to procedural justice, the study also looks at other questions, such as whether ODR reduces the time and stress on parties and courts; affects case outcomes; and improves litigants’ use of court procedures and navigation of court rules.

For more on how courts are using ODR, visit RSI’s Special Topic on Online Dispute Resolution.