Efforts to reduce the burden on county court systems have taken the form of online resolutions, where businesses and individuals can settle claims without a trip to the local courthouse.
(TNS) — A new online tool that will allow businesses and individuals to settle disputes over debt claims without going to court went live in five New Mexico counties Monday.
The pilot program — which the state Administrative Office of the Courts began offering this week in Grant, Luna, Hidalgo, Roosevelt and Curry counties — will be expanded to Bernalillo County next week, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said at a news conference Monday in Albuquerque.
If all goes according to plan, Nakamura said, the Online Dispute Resolution program will be expanded to the rest of the state next year.
While criminal cases dominate the news, Nakamura said about 74 percent of the cases filed in the state’s district courts are civil cases. And about 31,000 of those filed in the past year were for debt or money due. These include claims filed by individuals or by businesses such as credit card companies or medical care providers.
The chief justice said the Online Dispute Resolution program will facilitate settlements and provide parties free access to mediators. The goal is to save time and expense, make a sometimes confusing judicial system less intimidating for defendants and free up civil judges to concentrate on moving more complex cases through the courts faster.
Unlike the courts, which are only open during business hours, the online tool would be available 24 hours a day.
Here is how it works: Once a plaintiff files a complaint and the defendant files a reply, both parties will receive an email from the dispute resolution system asking them to answer five to 10 questions aimed at facilitating a resolution.
For example, they could be asked to state an amount for which they would agree to settle the case.
From there, the parties can negotiate settlement agreements online and, if they come to terms, the system will generate and automatically file a settlement agreement with the court, eliminating the need for the parties to appear before a judge.
Either side can ask for a volunteer mediator to assist in the process.
“This is an opportunity to bring justice into people’s living rooms,” said Second Judicial District Judge Jane C. Levy of Albuquerque, who led a judicial team on implementing the new system. “As long as you have a cellphone with connection to some sort of Wi-Fi, or if you have a computer, you can use our system.”
Levy said that in addition to saving the courts and litigants time and money, the online resolution program will make a process that can be daunting for individuals more user friendly.
“It gives people an opportunity to negotiate without feeling intimidated,” she said.
Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Terri Cole said at Monday’s news conference she expects the program to be a boon for the business community as well.
“New Mexico can benefit economically from courts implementing programs like Online Dispute Resolution to better manage caseloads and redirect their resources,” Cole said, adding that it would give judges more time to make faster ruling on more complex disputes that can affect business decisions.
Nakamura said the program is free to participants, but the state will pay $15 to Tyler Technologies for each case that is adjudicated via the online tool.
The chief justice said that during the initial roll-out of the program the fee will be covered by a one-time $450,000 legislative appropriation earmarked for that purpose.
Those who prefer have their cases handled in person by a judge don’t have to use the tool, Nakamura said.
If the program proves successful, Nakamura said, the judiciary will approach the Legislature during the next session for additional funding to implement it in the rest of the state.
Nakamura said Alaska, Utah, Texas, Michigan and Nevada have had “promising results” with similar systems, and it’s possible the system could be expanded in the future to other types of cases such as landlord-tenant disputes, traffic violations and parenting plans.
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