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Judges, Private Sector Spread Online Dispute Resolution in Courts

Those involved with the development and use of online dispute resolution platforms see opportunities for the systems that extend well past divorces and small claims court.

Across the country, a system called online dispute resolution (ODR) is taking hold within municipal and county court systems.

ODR is helping individuals resolve legal troubles without having to set foot in the courtroom. So far, it’s being used in small claims court — settling arguments between neighbors over fences, or helping with debt collection issues, among other things — as well in some divorce cases.

The concept behind it is simple: A back and forth online negotiation replaces the need to appear in court, easing the load for overburdened court systems while helping residents get equitable access to justice. This removes the need to take time off work, hire a lawyer or physically spend time in a government building.

The effort to facilitate the systems spread is one that’s been studied, publicized and guided by nonprofit organizations. Ultimately, though, it’s continued growth is an effect of private-public cooperation, with private-sector companies simplifying and selling the platforms that courtrooms and other governing bodies at the state, county and local levels are buying in to.

Earlier this month at South by Southwest (SXSW) — the technology, film and music conference in Austin, Texas — a panel was held about this very topic, during which the participants agreed that products developed by the private sector have been responsible for the quick spread of ODR, which is now being used by more than 50 jurisdictions throughout the 50 states.

Judge Randall Slagle of Travis County, Texas, adopted ODR for his courtroom through a system from Tyler Technologies called Modria Online Dispute Resolution in August. Slagle’s court uses ODR for small claims cases of $10,000 or less. In addition to easing the burden on the court and enabling participants to handle legal issues without hiring lawyers, Slagle said another benefit has been fostering genial solutions to disputes.

“Many cases, I truly think, benefit not only from having their cases resolved in a faster, more expedient manner,” Slagle said, “but they resolve their case in a way where they can continue being neighbors. Both parties — while maybe not being extremely happy — are not going to hate each other.”

Taking the emotion out of the disagreement, or at least keeping the negotiations practical, is by design, said Jamie Gillespie general manager of ODR for Tyler Technologies. ODR is a more rigid form of online communication than something conversational like texting, which allows participants to dredge up past history and express feelings of anger. Gillespie said that Tyler’s Modria has predefined workflows that ask simple questions about how much money participants are willing to pay or accept, among other things.

“If years of conflict have built up to this, that’s not relevant,” Gillespie said. “So we’re asking questions about what the the problem is and getting them to be very specific about what they’re looking for.”

Slagle, Gillespie and the panelists at SXSW all agreed that the future for ODR in America’s court system is a bright one, envisioning a time when it will be standard throughout the country.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.