Resources / Study / Innovation for Court ADR

Just Court ADR

The blog of Resolution Systems Institute

Archive for the ‘Online Dispute Resolution’ Category

Tools to Help Courts Improve ODR Communications Now Available

Rachel Feinstein, April 9th, 2024

RSI has completed the first phase of the ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project! We are excited to share what we have learned from our research and to roll out new downloadable tools designed to support courts. A summary of our research, our full report and the tools can be found in a new section of our website.

Report cover: Making ODR More Accessible to Self-Represented Parties: Focus Group Perspectives

The Study

For this extensive study, RSI conducted six focus groups with a total of 41 participants from three areas of the country. Our aim was to uncover barriers to using court-referred text-based ODR (online dispute resolution) and ways courts can address these barriers. More information about the study, a summary of the findings and key takeaways are available on the OPEN Project section of our website, in addition to the full report.   

Tools for Courts

Informed by our research findings, RSI developed tools to help courts communicate more effectively about ODR. The two downloadable documents, “Communicating Effectively about ODR: A Guide for Courts” and a “Document Preparation Worksheet and Checklist for ODR Programs,” are both accessible on our website.

The Guide for Courts provides recommendations for developing documents, websites and video tutorials for ODR that are easy to understand and use, particularly for those who have low literacy and are self-represented.

The Document Preparation Worksheet and Checklist walks readers through each step of the document prep process, from considering the characteristics of the audience to determining the key content to include and the best way to communicate this content. Once documents are completed, the interactive checklist provides an opportunity to review the material and ensure all key recommendations were incorporated.

Next Up in Phase 2: Model Materials

RSI is very proud of what we have accomplished in Phase 1, and there is more to come! We are now starting Phase 2, in which we will work with an inclusive designer to create model court documents, a brief informational ODR video and a mockup webpage, using our findings from Phase 1 and previous research on best practices.

We will user-test these models to learn what barriers persist for people when attempting to use the models to register for ODR. After all our user-testing is complete and barriers have been addressed, courts will be able to download the final model documents, video and webpage to use as examples when developing their communications. This will provide added support to courts with limited resources, who will be able to simply replicate these models and tailor them to their specific needs and audience using instructions we will provide. 

RSI is grateful for the generous support of the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation for making the OPEN Project possible.

New Board Member Oladeji Tiamiyu Talks Tech, ADR and More

Just Court ADR, March 19th, 2024

Resolution Systems Institute (RSI) recently welcomed two new members to its Board of Directors! Texas A&M Law Professor Nancy A. Welsh and University of Denver Law Professor Oladeji M. Tiamiyu attended their first Board meeting in February, and RSI is so grateful for their service. We’d like to help you get to know them, beginning this month with a Q&A with Prof. Tiamiyu.  

Professor Oladeji Tiamiyu is an RSI board member

Oladeji Tiamiyu is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Denver (DU) and an Expert Adviser to early-stage ventures at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. Before joining DU, he was a clinician at Harvard Law School’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. His research interests focus on the intersection of technology and dispute resolution. Read more about his background and find links to his work in his RSI bio.

When/where were you first introduced to alternative dispute resolution?

Before I went to law school, I had some degree of concern that the courts were not always the best place to resolve conflict. And I fondly remember being in my criminal law class, one of my favorite classes in law school with Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, and thinking about alternatives to the carceral state. Shortly after then, I took a law school negotiations class that served as a gateway drug to this field. Now when I think about ADR, it is no longer about being an “alternative” in the strict sense of the word, but instead being a complement to litigation, so there’s been some personal evolution in how I think about the field.

I understand that you have a particular interest in the intersection of technology and dispute resolution. What drew you to this combination of topics?

Yes, well, I don’t know the extent my interest would have developed without Colin Rule. I had my first conversation with him in 2019, and I left essentially salivating for more ideas. From an intellectual and practical level, Colin has shaped me and hundreds of thousands of others in thinking about technology’s role with ADR.

And a few months after this conversation, there was dramatic upheaval in the legal profession. The legal tectonic plates were shifting dramatically. With the pandemic, courts were closed. Mediators and arbitrators were staying at home. It probably was the first time some of my highly social mediator friends didn’t want to meet anyone in person. And it was during this time that technology’s role became more than an esoteric idea, but instead necessary to keeping the courthouse open, albeit virtually.

Maybe we’ll talk about this later, but I found a way to work at RSI during this moment of change. So if Colin was the first to spark my interest, I am indebted to RSI, Susan Yates and Erik Slepak-Cherney for giving me space to explore technology’s role on a practical level.

What are some of the big questions related to tech and dispute resolution that interest you?

There are many. One lingering question from COVID is whether the pandemic led to a permanent change in how dispute resolution is practiced. Are mediators and arbitrators comfortable in incorporating online processes? Is there a critical mass of parties and disputes seeking out online processes? There’s some amount of data to suggest the answer to both is yes, but as we have greater psychological and temporal separation from the pandemic, there will be greater clarity.

I also share a sentiment with many other ODR scholars about whether online process increases access to justice. I’ll go a step further in inquiring whether the relationship between parties fundamentally changes when engaging in online process. That is, do parties communicate differently, problem-solve differently, trust differently and build consensus differently when in an online space?

There’s also the question of the role of artificial intelligence in these systems. Nvidia, ChatGPT, and Brazil’s VICTOR have all expanded our horizons for what could be possible with AI. I’m excited to see who will be the Jen-Hsun Huang of the dispute resolution field that develops an application with AI to fundamentally change what is possible in ADR. 

The exciting part is that RSI is at a unique position to bring clarity to these questions.

What attracted you to/made you want to join the RSI Board?

RSI as an organization. We have done such important research over the years. We have collaborated with innovative courts. I’ve also been on the other side as an employee, and I personally know the integrity of the employees.

I am particularly honored to be joining RSI at this specific time of change. Susan Yates is one of the foremost thought leaders in our field. Judges know it. Academics know it. The American Bar Association knows it. As she leaves RSI, I was intrigued at being a steward for this great organization to ensure that we continue to do the important work our organization has historically championed.

What are your ADR-related courses or other activities at the University of Denver law school?

From my lens, everything I teach has an ADR bend to it. So much of the modern-day legal profession depends on ADR skillsets. As Arthur Miller described many years ago, settlement and negotiations cannot be separated from being a lawyer. So I teach Contract Law, Family Law, and a survey of ADR course. Yet with Contract Law, my students get an introduction to simulations for negotiating contracts that advance their client’s interests, or simulations that prepare them to negotiate out-of-court settlements when there is a breach of contract.

In Family Law, my students do simulations in mediating and negotiating agreements for child custody and alimony. Much of what I try to impart in all of my classes is that ADR skillsets will help my students be better client-centered lawyers.

You were a Public Interest Law Initiative Fellow with RSI in the past. Is there something you learned or experienced in that role that will help you in your work on the RSI Board?

Yes, I have tremendous admiration for the PILI fellowship and gratitude for Sidley Austin LLP for their active engagement in public interest work in both Illinois and nationally. I hope more law graduates practicing in Illinois recognize how special of a state Illinois is for building the infrastructure for PILI. Overall, my PILI fellowship informed some of my hopes and aspirations for the ADR field. It was through PILI that I met some of the nation’s leading dispute resolution practitioners based in Chicago.

But the most valuable lesson I learned from being a PILI Fellow has less to do with ADR. Because RSI is such a collegial and accessible non-profit, my time as a PILI Fellow helped me to appreciate the impact that non-profits can have. Fulfilling lawyering can be in a non-profit office as much as in a law firm or in a courtroom.

What in your current academic work, if anything, relates to the work of RSI?

Much of my research touches on topics that are highly germane to RSI. My research shares a fundamental commitment to exploring how best to leverage dispute resolution to promote access to justice.

What are you most looking forward to during your time on the RSI Board?  

Chicago is fortunate to have RSI, but RSI can and historically has had an impact in different corners of the country. So I am excited to see how our organization grows, especially in a time when there is a fundamental change in the legal profession. There are few other organizations with as sizeable of a network with the judiciary, legal profession and dispute resolution field. I’m excited to see how we can use all of these assets to introduce greater innovation for dispute resolution.

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.  

Courts Can Take Steps to Design Text-Based ODR Programs that Better Serve Parties

Jennifer Shack, June 22nd, 2023

While conducting two of the first independent evaluations of text-based online dispute resolution (ODR) programs in U.S. state courts, Donna Shestowsky and I found those programs promoted access to justice in some ways, but inhibited it in others. To help other courts, we wrote an article about how they might reduce potential barriers when developing and implementing their text-based ODR programs. The following is a summary of our advice from the article, “Access to Justice: Lessons for Designing Text-based Court-Connected ODR Programs,” which was recently published in Dispute Resolution Magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association.

Court adoption of text-based ODR allows parties to communicate asynchronously, at their convenience, from anywhere. This suggests that ODR has the potential to increase access to justice, particularly for self-represented litigants,[i] and could lead to increased efficiency and reduced costs for parties and courts alike.[ii] Conversely, however, for parties who lack digital literacy or access to technology, mandated ODR could instead benefit already advantaged parties and leave others behind. Furthermore, in some instances, mandating ODR could reduce access to justice by overriding consent and party self-determination.[iii]

The Texas and Michigan Programs

The programs we evaluated differed in the issues involved and the platforms used. In Collin County, Texas, we assessed a debt and small claims pilot program in a busy Justice of the Peace Court (JP3-1) that used the Modria platform. In Ottawa County, Michigan, we examined a program for post-judgment family matters brought to the Friend of the Court (FOC), an agency under the aegis of the Chief Judge of the 20th Circuit Court. The FOC used the Matterhorn platform. Both programs, however, were intended to be mandatory once the program was referred. And both required that the parties register and communicate via text on the ODR platforms.

Litigant survey responses suggested that many parties were unaware of the ODR program or did not understand its main features. When asked what would make them more likely to use ODR for a similar case in the future, half said more information.

Although the programs we evaluated used different ODR platform vendors, the platforms worked similarly and had comparable limitations. The platforms provided a chat space and permitted third-party facilitation or mediation. Neither was available to those with significant visual impairments or limited English proficiency. Both allowed only one individual per side to participate. This limitation meant that in Texas if a party had a lawyer, the lawyer participated alone. In Michigan, only parties could participate, and those who had lawyers were not referred to ODR.

Possible Reasons for Not Using ODR

Although ODR was ostensibly mandatory in both programs, the majority of parties in each court did not use ODR. In Texas, both parties to a case used the platform in only 81 of 341 cases (24%) referred to ODR. In Michigan, ODR use was twice as high: For the 102 matters in which caseworkers determined ODR was appropriate, 48% used ODR. In 26 of the 53 matters in which the parties in the Michigan program opted not to use ODR, at least one party did not register on the platform.

Survey and interview data suggest a few reasons parties did not use ODR. In both programs, staff indicated they did not send parties who lacked digital literacy to ODR, and litigant survey responses suggested that many parties were unaware of the ODR program or did not understand its main features. In the Texas program, of those who did not use ODR, 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.

In survey responses for the Michigan program, parties appeared to lack a basic understanding of how ODR worked. Half of the 50 parties surveyed near the start of their matter did not know ODR was offered free of charge.

According to Texas court staff, litigants received information about the ODR program via the notice the court sent to them (or their lawyers) about their court date, and through an email or text from the platform when the court uploaded their case to it — if the court had their email address or cellphone number. Both the notice and the email lacked information about how ODR worked. Similarly, the Michigan program’s automated email and text, platform, and FOC website missed opportunities to educate the parties.

Implications for Courts

Despite their accessibility issues, both the Texas and Michigan programs had similar access to justice benefits. Our evaluations suggest that for those parties who use ODR, the process is convenient. We found that 72% of ODR use in Texas and 52% in Michigan occurred outside of court and office hours, i.e., at times not available to them in traditional dispute resolution methods. However, in both programs, many parties simply did not register to use ODR. In addition, 50% of ODR users who responded to our survey noted that they liked that ODR was easy to use. These findings indicate that ODR can increase convenience.

Nonetheless, our finding that some parties lacked information or had nontrivial misconceptions about ODR also suggests parties did not always make informed decisions about whether to participate. To enhance access to justice and self-determination, courts should incorporate a communications plan. The plan should:

  • Specify how parties can learn about the program and detail what information court personnel should relay about ODR
  • Indicate what information about ODR to include on the court’s websites and the ODR platform to educate parties about how to use ODR and its potential risks and benefits
  • Outline outreach efforts to urge social services or other agencies to inform their clients about the ODR program

Additionally, courts should present information about ODR in a way that is comprehensible to individuals with low literacy. They should also explain the privacy and confidentiality implications of using ODR, especially regarding whether and how communications shared on the platform might be used in subsequent legal proceedings.

Further, ODR offerings should be accessible to all eligible parties. Courts should urge ODR providers to facilitate use by parties with visual impairments and limited English proficiency. Additionally, courts should direct parties who do not have reliable internet access to computers in the courthouse or other community locations — though as a result of limited business hours and privacy concerns, this solution is far from ideal.

Courts should also ensure that text-based platforms are user-friendly for smartphone users. In the Michigan program, 71% of participants exclusively used a smartphone for ODR. (We did not have information on the devices Texas ODR participants used.) Yet our findings indicate that text-based ODR may be difficult for smartphone users. Courts should urge ODR providers to include in-app voice control to facilitate ODR use on smartphones generally, a change that might be especially important for individuals with disabilities that restrict their ability to type. Parties should also be able to participate in ODR with their attorneys.

Finally, courts should explore ways to maximize access to their platforms for those who lack digital literacy. Usability testing, similar to that conducted for Utah’s ODR pilot program,8 can help identify challenges and potential solutions for given platforms. Courts might also consider providing parties with links to web-based resources or trainings that could increase their comfort with technology.

Given ODR’s current technological limitations and the percentage of the population that continues to lack reliable internet access or digital literacy, ODR is not a panacea for the continued access to justice problem in the U.S. Additionally, our evaluations suggest that parties have different preferences for how to resolve their disputes. To enhance access to justice, and to advance party self-determination, ODR might best serve parties as part of a constellation of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options rather than being the only form of court-connected ADR.


[i] Amy J. Schmitz, Measuring “Access to Justice” in the Rush to Digitize, 88 Fordham L. Rev. 2381 (2020).

[ii] Amy J. Schmitz, Measuring “Access to Justice” in the Rush to Digitize, 88 Fordham L. Rev. 2381 (2020).

[iii] Amy J. Schmitz & Leah Wing, Beneficial and Ethical ODR for Family Issues, 59 Fam. Ct. Rev. 250 (2021).

Verified by ExactMetrics