Text-based online dispute resolution (ODR) programs are often touted as a way to increase access to justice. They are seen as more convenient, less costly to parties, and less intimidating, and thus as having the potential to reduce the default rate, particularly for debt cases. Yet early evaluations of ODR programs have found that they suffer from low participation. An information gap, worsened by the prevalence of low literacy, contributes to this low participation.
Through a generous grant from the AAA-ICDR Foundation, RSI’s ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project hopes to address this problem by gaining insights from impacted populations and using those insights to develop guidance on communication materials for small claims courts that use ODR.
The Information Gap
RSI’s ODR evaluations found that parties were often unaware of their court’s ODR program or did not understand what ODR was and how it worked. We identified deficiencies in the language the courts used to inform and educate parties, and in how the information was provided. In Utah, a usability study found that parties did not always understand the information provided and wanted more information than was offered.
These evaluations point to a need for better information to apprise parties that an ODR program exists and educate them about the program. Then they could knowledgeably decide whether the program might benefit them, understand what the risks may be, and learn how to use the ODR platform.
Need for Digital Hand-holding
Informing parties properly has become more important with the increase in self-represented litigants. According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 48% of US adults struggle to perform tasks with text-based information, such as reading directions, with 19% only capable of performing short tasks.
Some courts have changed their approach to helping parties, with varying success. But even those that recognize the need to serve their constituents better may not realize they have a communication problem. Recently, the Colorado Supreme Court conducted a listening tour throughout the state to find out how it might better serve the state courts’ constituents. The main takeaway was that people with low literacy could not understand the courts’ communications to them.
Some courts have instituted alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs, such as RSI’s virtual eviction mediation programs, that involve access to a program administrator to help parties navigate the program. Small claims ODR programs are different. These programs require parties to use ODR before their first hearing, and they often do not have a designated staff person to help those who have the wherewithal to reach out to the court on their own. Without a person to “hold their hand” through the process, parties need digital hand-holding.
RSI’s Project Goals
To engage and educate parties, courts should offer ODR participants materials that are easy to understand and to access via multiple methods (e.g., mailed notices, videos, text guides). A recent readability study of court forms found that simplifying the text used in the forms increased participants’ understanding of the purpose of a subpoena from 29% to 70%.
Courts generally do not have the knowledge or capacity to develop materials that can be readily understood by people with low literacy. For the OPEN Project, RSI will conduct a series of focus groups and apply their findings, along with best practices developed from prior research, to develop guidance on communication materials for small claims courts using ODR. Cases such as debt, landlord-tenant, eviction and consumer-merchant cases are likely to benefit.
OPEN aims to make access to justice more equitable for self-represented, diverse populations who are either required or offered the opportunity to use text-based court ODR for debt and small claims cases.
Watch this space for updates on our findings.