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Can Family Matters Be Mediated on a 24/7 Text Platform?

The Michigan Supreme Court has expanded new technology to make mediation services available to parents with busy and unpredictable schedules — but can domestic issues really be settled through text?

Closeup of a child's hand coming from the left side of the image and holding some of the fingers of an adult's hand coming from the right side of the image.
Parents in Michigan who want a mediator’s help to settle a dispute about where their child will spend the holidays can now take their case to a free 24/7 chat platform. But first, they’ll have to be convinced the new technology is a viable way to make an agreement.

The tool, MI-Resolve, has been used for civil matters statewide since 2020. The Michigan Supreme Court funds the platform and expanded its use for family court matters in the spring, intending to help families settle common issues like arranging parenting time, revising parent agreements or resolving disputes about medications, daycare providers or school choice.
The goal is to provide families with equal access to the mediation process and keep them from having to take the issue to a circuit court. In Michigan, there are 17 Community Dispute Resolution Program (CDRP) centers throughout the state, financially supported by the Michigan Supreme Court. The centers make use of volunteer mediators who complete at least 40 hours of training. In 2022, the program managed 31,456 cases, and of the family division cases handled, more than 70 percent of agreements made with mediators were kept.

There have been both successes and roadblocks in the first six months of the program. The system operates asynchronously, meaning both parties and the mediator don’t have to be online at the same time, but can respond to comments at a time that’s most convenient for them. When a party or the mediator makes a new comment, the others will receive an email alerting them of the update.
A screenshot of the MI-Resolve system user interface.
The MI-Resolve system user interface.
“It allows clients to use the system when it’s convenient; they’re not having to take time off work, they’re not having to drive somewhere for services,” said Michelle Hilliker, online dispute resolution manager for the Michigan Supreme Court.

Hilliker added that the platform is especially beneficial for those who are more comfortable communicating through text, as well as people who don’t want to see the other party face-to-face for various reasons.

The convenience however, does come with some challenges.

“Some people will get a little frustrated because the other party may not jump on as soon as they did,” said Hilliker. “Maybe they registered right away once the email came, and the other party waited until the next day, or the other party was on vacation. That can be a little frustrating for the parties.”

That can create extra work for the centers, who will follow up with a nonresponsive party.

There are other challenges. Some mediator volunteers weren’t comfortable using the technology, while others prefer to mediate in situations where they can see both parties face-to-face and pick up on nonverbal communication.

The State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) admits there’s a roadblock in determining just how effective the tool is for settling family matters — they don’t have access to program data. The vendor who operates MI-Resolve, Court Innovations, is developing a dashboard to provide data about how many cases MI-Resolve is handling and the results produced, but it’s not ready yet.

However, SCAO feels confident about the tool’s potential due to positive survey responses. According to Hilliker, 91 percent of respondents in a recent MI-Resolve survey reported that they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” to the prompt “MI-Resolve was convenient to address my issue.” Overall, 81 percent of clients who used the MI-Resolve system said they would use the tool again.

One tangible impact court staff have noticed: They’re getting fewer phone calls of a certain type.

“This is really helping with individuals who might be frequently calling the front of the court,” said Hilliker. “Let’s say they’re calling because ‘He’s late again,’ or ‘She forgot to send back this or that.’ This way allows the participants now to have a contact name and phone number that can immediately help them — it may not be that day, but it will probably be more quickly than what a court is going to be able to get to with the workloads that they have.”

In the future, SCAO is considering using MI-Resolve as a mediation tool for probate court matters. As project leaders continue to learn more about MI-Resolve and other virtual mediation services work, they’re sharing what they’ve learned, hoping to connect and collaborate with other agencies who are experimenting with online dispute resolution.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.