Resources / Study / Innovation for Court ADR

Just Court ADR

The blog of Resolution Systems Institute

Archive for the ‘Accessibility’ Category

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.  

Could RSI’s Latest Research Project ‘OPEN’ Door to ODR for Parties with Low Literacy?

Jennifer Shack, April 13th, 2023

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.

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.

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.

Two New RSI Special Topics Available

Susan M. Yates, December 21st, 2021

RSI is pleased to announce we have added two new Special Topics to our Resource Center. One is about Restorative Justice and its relationship to court ADR and the other is about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in court ADR. RSI develops Special Topics from time to time to respond to issues people who work with court ADR are facing. These latest Special Topics join others on subjects such as eviction mediation, online dispute resolution and child protection mediation.

Both these Special Topics were made possible by a grant from the American Arbitration Association – International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. Thank you to the AAA-ICDR Foundation!

Verified by ExactMetrics