Resources / Study / Innovation for Court ADR

Just Court ADR

The blog of Resolution Systems Institute

Author Archive

Want Your Court Communications to Be Accessible? RSI Focus Groups Offer Insights

Rachel Feinstein, October 16th, 2023

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.

Participants in an RSI focus group in Texas provide feedback on sample court documents in October 2023.

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.

“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.”

— Focus group participant

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

RSI focus group participants in Texas shared their recommendations for how court informational materials could be improved and their preferences for receiving court notifications and instructions.

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.

RSI Guide Will Help Courts Make ODR Communications More Accessible

Rachel Feinstein, September 14th, 2023

In 2022, RSI and the University of California, Davis, published two evaluations of court-related online dispute resolution (ODR) programs. A main finding of those evaluations was that parties did not have sufficient information about the programs they were being required to use. We went on to look at programs in other courts and found that the information available to parties about ODR varied, and that courts, despite making significant efforts to provide this information, needed help to do so. This was especially true for communicating with self-represented litigants. Our findings have led RSI to conduct new research that will result in a guide for courts that need to communicate with parties about their ODR programs.

The Case for Accessible Court Communications

RSI Researcher Rachel Feinstein, pictured, and Director of Research Jennifer Shack facilitated focus groups for RSI’s ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project in Berlin, NH, in late August.

Across the US, 72% of family law cases and 76% of civil cases involve at least one self-represented litigant. As more people are handling civil cases without a lawyer, it is increasingly important that everyone can understand and use court communications, regardless of their educational background. Accessible court communications can reduce default rates and increase access to court services and programs, including ODR programs.

Half of the adult population in the US struggles to read lengthy, dense texts to complete tasks and accurately answer questions. Developing court resources with this in mind can significantly improve people’s understanding of how to access court resources, and can increase participation rates in various programs. One recent study found that simplifying the text used in court forms improved participants’ understanding of the purpose of a subpoena from 23% to 70%. Studies have also found important patterns in the reading styles and strategies of people who have low literacy, such as avoiding dense blocks of text and ignoring information on the left and right sides of the web page. Effective court communications take these types of reading patterns into account.

Digital Literacy is Another Challenge

But language and writing styles are not the only issues. Many people rely on websites and online resources provided by courts to gather the information they need, provide information to courts, and participate in online court programs. Despite widespread use of the internet, a large percentage of US adults struggle with digital literacy, or the ability to use digital technology to find information, complete tasks or communicate.

When designing websites or other digital resources, courts can benefit from recognizing common patterns among people who have low digital literacy skills. For example, people with low digital literacy will often avoid the use of search boxes, opting instead to link surf. And it is common to satisfice quickly, or give up before finding necessary information. In RSI’s forthcoming guide for courts, we will provide more information about reading patterns and strategies common among people with low literacy and low digital literacy, with the aim of supporting courts in developing ODR material everyone can use.    

Helping ODR Serve More Parties

The movement to use accessible court communications helps both parties and the courts. For example, civil courts throughout the country are investing in ODR programs. Many people can benefit from the convenience, lower cost and less intimidating process of resolving conflicts online. However, ODR participation rates remain very low, even when it is mandatory. If self-represented litigants understand the steps they need to take, more may take part in their case and do so in a more informed manner. This, in turn, will help courts by increasing participation in ODR.

The experience of the ODR programs we evaluated provides a valuable example of the need to develop effective court communications to help parties to more easily navigate court services and to improve participation in court programs. In a typical ODR process for debt and small claims cases, the court requires that defendants be given a notice of the ODR program. This notice provides written instructions to register on a third-party platform. Once they register, they can try to resolve their case with the plaintiff before their first hearing. The defendant will likely complete the entire process without interacting with court staff. Further, ODR is unfamiliar to most people, increasing the importance of courts’ efforts with written communications — and sometimes instructional videos — to provide parties adequate information to participate in their case. 

Maximizing Court Programs’ Potential

If done well, court communications can narrow the information gap and maximize the potential of a variety of court ODR programs. Enhancing access to justice requires the development of effective and accessible court communications that people from all backgrounds and education levels can easily understand and use.  RSI’s ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project is working to support courts in this effort by conducting focus groups in three areas of the US. Through these focus groups, we will hear from a diverse group of people who have a low income and low education, to learn what works for court notices, guides, websites and instructional videos pertaining to ODR. We will use our data, along with previous research, to develop a broadly applicable guide for civil courts to use when developing communications that reduce barriers to participation in ODR for people with low literacy.

This project is generously supported by the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation.  

New, Free IPV Screening Tool Can Help Ensure that Mediation is Safe and Fair

Rachel Feinstein, June 14th, 2023

Screening for interpersonal violence and abuse (IPV/A) is an essential step for making family mediation safer and more fair for all parties. Unfortunately, in “Joint Session or Caucus? Factors Related to How the Initial Mediation Session Begins,” Roselle Wissler and Art Hinshaw found that only 11% of surveyed family mediators screened for IPV, or had access to the screening results, prior to mediation (see footnote 85). A new tool, the MASIC-S, might change that. The MASIC-S is available free at ODR.com for all mediators. It is an abbreviated version of the Mediator’s Assessment of Safety Issues and Concerns (MASIC), which was developed in 2010 and is widely referenced for use in family mediation.

Screenshot of the webpage for MASIC-S, a new tool to screen for interpersonal violence and abuse.
MASIC-S is an abbreviated version of the Mediator’s Assessment of Safety Issues and Concerns (MASIC). It is available for free at ODR.com (screenshot from website above) for all mediators.

RSI is particularly interested in this new tool in light of our 2018 project, supported by the Family and Interpersonal Resilience and Safety Transformation Fund, that studied IPV screening tools, surveyed experts in IPV dynamics (as well as lawyers, judges and mediators) on best and actual practices, and convened those experts to explore how to close that gap. The research led to an extensive report outlining RSI’s proposed solution and the steps to actualize it.

The questions in the MASIC-S focus on abuse in past or current relationships. Many of the questions have been validated, meaning that they accurately identify severe and concerning degrees of abuse, which the screening tool aims to assess. Mediators can screen parties during intake by privately administering the MASIC-S questionnaire in person or through videoconferencing. After each party has completed the questionnaire, the mediator will be prompted to consider specific questions regarding whether or not mediation is appropriate for the case, and if so, what accommodations might be necessary for a safe and voluntary process.

The Comprehensive Guidance provides detailed instructions for administering the MASIC-S, as well as directions to follow based on a party’s score. For example, if a party receives a score of 3 or higher, the guide recommends refraining from mediating jointly in-person; however, online mediation may still be a reasonable option. The Comprehensive Guidance even provides scripts to follow, such as what a mediator can say to safely terminate mediation without blaming either party or endangering a survivor.

The MASIC-S is also designed to protect confidentiality of the parties. For example, mediators do not record any identifying information that could connect responses to a particular person, and the results are not shared with the other party. Additionally, the responses are not stored online; mediators can instead download a PDF of the responses if they want a record of them. Using this abbreviated screening tool at intake can help to ensure mediation is appropriate for the parties and necessary accommodations are made for a safe and just process.

Verified by ExactMetrics