RSI’s research has shown that self-represented parties in small claims cases often don’t understand what online dispute resolution (ODR) is or how to use it, even when courts require their participation. To learn what self-represented parties need when a small claims case is filed against them, RSI’s OPEN Project is going to the source — conducting focus groups with people similar to these parties and asking what works for them.
Director of Research Jennifer Shack and I led two focus groups in rural New Hampshire in August, followed by two groups in Texas in early October. We will finish our data collection for the ODR Party Engagement Project in Maryland this month. In the meantime, we want to share some of the initial insights we have gained.
Hearing from 26 participants so far, we have learned about many of the barriers people experience when faced with examples of court documents, a court website and instructional court videos. Groups also shared their recommendations for how the material could be improved and their preferences for receiving court notifications and instructions. The majority of participants have a maximum of high school education. Most, if not all, participants earn less than $50,000/year. These income and education characteristics parallel the backgrounds typical of self-represented litigants, making their insights regarding the comprehensibility and usability of court material invaluable as we aim to develop recommendations for accessible court resources.
Notification Preferences Vary Widely
We are excited to share some preliminary findings from our focus groups. First, we have learned that providing court resources in a variety of formats is essential to addressing the public’s needs and preferences. Focus group participants expressed minimal consensus about the ideal way to learn about their involvement in a lawsuit or how to proceed with online dispute resolution. For example, only half of the 26 participants said they would prefer to receive an initial notice about their lawsuit through the mail. Six people would prefer to receive notice about their case over the phone, while five would prefer text message, and only one person wants to learn of their case via email.
Further reflecting this need for variety, participants in two of our groups were enthusiastic about using instructional videos to learn about registering for ODR. One participant in New Hampshire shared, “I think a video would be good. Where they could break it down and explain it a little bit more in depth.” Another person agreed, “Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m a visual learner … If this was on YouTube … everything would be fine. It’d be perfect.”
A third participant added, “There are times where the form of a video works wonders in comparison to throwing a chapter out of a book at me or something.”
In contrast, most participants in the Texas focus groups did not express a need or interest in viewing videos to get this information. But several people did agree that, as one said, “options are good,” when attempting to meet the potential variety of needs, learning styles and preferences among self-represented litigants.
Participants Wary of Possible Scams
One topic where focus group participants were largely in agreement was their concern about being scammed. During the focus groups, we asked all participants to look at one of two ODR websites on a laptop or tablet that we provided. The first step many participants took was to assess the credibility of the website. For instance, the first reactions routinely included comments about whether the site was legitimate or a scam. Some participants also expressed apprehension regarding receiving the mailed Notice to Defendants, wanting to contact the court to check that it was legitimately a lawsuit against them before following the instructions on the document.)
This initial step of assessing documents and websites for legitimacy may be crucial for courts to be aware of when developing their communications and other resources, since apprehension about whether the material is trustworthy could inhibit people from beginning the process.
Simple, Organized Info Is Desired
One of the most consistent themes among the participants so far has been the desire for court resources to be simple and quick to use. For instance, we heard from many individuals who want courts to use simple language, concise instructions and well-organized documents or videos. Some participants specifically requested more spacing around paragraphs, and people found sections with bullet points or short fill-in-the blank questions easy to understand.
We anticipate delving more deeply into strategies for making court resources simpler to use and comprehend. Additionally, participants have been identifying key information that is missing from the material and sharing their emotional responses to the court resources. We look forward to examining these and other themes in more detail after we conclude our focus groups later this month.
Check back soon for a summary of our findings and a guide for courts, which we will provide on a new RSI webpage this spring!
As always, RSI is grateful to the AAA-ICDR Foundation for supporting this important work.