Bringing Online Dispute Resolution to Family Courts in the United States

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Colin Rule, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Modria.com, an online dispute resolution service provider based in San Jose, California.  From 2003-2011 he was the Director of Online Dispute Resolution at eBay and PayPal.

“A Court Compass for Litigants: Building an App for That” was the title of a meeting of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) on June 9-10, 2016  in Denver, Colorado.  The attendees were diverse: family attorneys, CEOs and Clerks of courts in large counties, Academics and Researchers, Court Innovations Entrepreneurs, and Executives from Legal Service Bureaus.  They shared a passion for expanding access to justice through the creation of a Court Compass, or a software-powered diagnosis and case management tool, that could assist litigators through their justice journey.  Tom Clarke from the National Center for State Courts prepared a paper in advance of the meeting that called out the business and technical requirements for such a system, and the two days were filled with animated discussions around what such a system would look like and what features it should encompass.

IAALS has now released a paper that summarizes the meeting.  The paper recognizes two new realities: a) that justice is not court-centric, and b) that it is impossible to supply every litigant who needs one with an attorney.  The paper then observes that many see a promising option for addressing these realities as “a litigant portal that helps individuals diagnose the existence of a legal problem and provides rich and relevant referrals, online dispute resolution where appropriate, and also seamless entry into the court process when chosen—accompanied by user friendly tools that will assist and support them through the court process.”

The paper acknowledges that there has already been some progress toward realizing the vision of this portal, but those efforts have been too fragmented to gain much traction.  The paper calls for a new strategic approach that is “1. Manageable in the first instance; 2. Grounded in standards that assure compatibility; 3. Scalable across states and courts; 4. Robustly measured; and 5. Ultimately financially sustainable.”

As a result, the paper’s core recommendation calls for the creation of a “Family Law Portal” (FLP) that will be largely based on online dispute resolution.  From the report:

“To help plan for the FLP, at the A Court Compass for Litigants convening, attendees were shown two tools designed to help people resolve their family law issues: Rechtwijzer 2.0 used in the Netherlands and MyLawBC used in British Columbia. The latter replicates the functionality of the former and adds an additional Guided Pathways feature. The features common to both include an online dispute resolution (“ODR”) system that helps families that are getting divorced with a minimum of judicial intervention. This process is based upon a concept developed for resolving consumer disputes on eBay—a system that resolves over 60 million disputes a year. The parties start the process online by following guided interviews that help them identify the issues and learn ways to resolve them. If the parties reach an impasse on an issue, they can request the assistance of a professional mediator.  Again, this is all within the online system. Should they not be able to reach agreement through mediation, 24 they can request a decision on the issue from a non-judicial hearing examiner. At the end of the process, the parties have a settlement agreement that will be filed with the court and signed by a judge.”

The report further recommends that the Rechtwijzer/MyLawBC platform be extended to multiple courts in the US to test its effectiveness in the US market.  From the conclusion:

“Rather than reinventing the wheel, IAALS proposes to replicate the features of Rechtwijzer and MyLawBC on a platform that can be scaled throughout the United States. In addition to the features described, it will incorporate the work that is being done by the Stanford Design School to facilitate natural language search inquiries, so that users do not need to cite legalese. The Stanford project plans to work with Google to identify the terms ‘real people’ use when looking for answers to their legal problems. This natural language approach will be used throughout the process.”

This meeting, and the resulting enthusiasm being marshalled by IAALS, represents the most coordinated effort to date to bring the cutting-edge ODR techniques already in use in Europe and Canada to the United States.  In addition to the American Bar Association, several large foundations have expressed their interest in putting resources behind the design and launch of such a system.  Most likely the pilot will start in one or two states, but once key performance indicators show the system is working as intended, it is likely that other states will join in as well.

The full report can be read Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 07.59.23.

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