Michigan’s MI-Resolve ODR an Outside the Box Strategy (Transcript)

May 19, 2020 – Doug Van Epps presented on MI-Resolve ODR at the “Expanding Court Operations II: Outside the Box Strategies.” Van Epps is the Director, Office of Dispute Resolution at the Michigan Supreme Court. Over 2,000 people registered for the event, which was hosted by the National Center for State Courts. Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack moderated the event.

Outside the Box Strategies: Administering the courts while the COVID-19 curve is flattened, May 19  from State Courts on Vimeo.

This webinar is part of the CCJ/COSCA Pandemic Rapid Response Team series “Administering the courts while the COVID-19 curve is flattened.” Learn more at ncsc.org/pandemic.

Transcript for your convenience

Starting at 59:41

“So, our system in Michigan is quite different from most of those around the country that I hear and know about. Most of the systems that I hear about are like Judge’s, where it’s administered in the court itself, it’s administered by staff, on a court to court basis.

“We in Michigan have decided to try a fairly large social experiment and go statewide with an online dispute resolution using our pre-existing network of Community Mediation Centers. (Next slide please.)”

Community Mediation Centers Map

“So, probably, much like other states, there are about 450 community mediation centers around the country. We have eighteen in Michigan. You may not know what these counties are, but they’re generally in the more metropolitan counties. In the north and Upper Peninsula, you can see that just six centers serve the entire northern half of the state.

“That presents some old court circuit-rider issues, in that doing face to face meditation, people would have to traverse long distances, sometimes five or six counties, to have a face to face mediation, although we try to have mediators throughout the state.

“Also, it was very hard to provide in-court service on the day of hearing because as we just talked about, there’s a significant number of defaults and no-shows, so a mediator might travel sixty miles to volunteer to mediate in court, only to have the docket disappear.”

Community Mediation Centers

“So, we then decided that based on (next slide please) based on some early experience a couple years ago with a vendor in Michigan, Court Innovations, that was developing online traffic ticket negotiation systems. We approached that entity and we did a small RFP actually with some other vendors, to see if we could take this very small system where people could negotiation traffic citations online, and build it out so that these community mediation centers could use their mediators to mediate cases throughout the state online.

“I need to spend just a minute to talk about what these community mediation centers are, some of you may be very familiar with them. But we’ve had this program existing since 1990. They manage…probably about 20,000 cases/year at this point.

“The mediators are all volunteers, the go through a 40-hour training program for general civil, 48 hours for domestic, including Domestic Violence screening.

“They started out back in the day with small claims and landlord-tenant and neighborhood disputes. Now they mediate pretty much everything that’s in a limited jurisdiction court, we call District Courts in Michigan. And even cases in the family division, probate, guardianship cases, child protection, divorces, usually mediating liability and net assets. And again as I mentioned earlier, traditionally they provided face to face mediation and now they’re using Zoom very effectively.

“In the court environment, another thing I was concerned about or interested in, was the scalability of long-term mediation in a court-administered program, given courts’ limited budgets. They’re going to become increasingly limited in the months and years ahead, I suspect, with the budget chaos that’s about to befall all of us.

“And if you wanted to mediate 100s, maybe 1,000s, of cases, could court staff do that? I speculated maybe, in some instances, if you’re mediating 100s of cases. But if you’re mediating the entire self-represented litigant post-judgment family division docket, probably not.

“That’s again informed why we wanted to test using this resource that we’ve already been funding for thirty years, to see if they could actually provide the dispute resolution services. (Next slide please.)”

MI-Resolve Implementation Counties

“When we approached our vendor to scale-up this online ticket negotiation system. We developed a platform with them over the course of about eighteen months, called MI-Resolve. As you can see, it’s implemented in about half the state. About half of the centers are up right now. The remaining nine dispute resolution centers will be online by June 15, we’re pretty confident of that.

“That means that instead of mediators running around 60-miles or 90-miles to a court to have face to face mediation in courtrooms, the mediators can mediate at-home, anywhere they want, 24/7. And the local centers oversee the work, it’s administered entirely by the local dispute resolution centers, with some oversight by our office.

“And the only thing that a court sees out of this entire system is what it has traditionally seen, which is either a consent judgment or a voluntary dismissal.

“So there’s no real additional work to the court in partnering with dispute resolution centers to do this, other than to change the notices of hearing or other notices to include a URL, to say either in a voluntary system, that in advance of your hearing, which is now set for September 30, you can go online today and see if you can resolve it in the Michigan Resolve system, and if so, you can send us the papers and we will either enter the consent judgment or the voluntary dismissal.

“It’s very low work for courts to do, again other than to receive the result of the mediation. (Next slide please.)

“The platform that we designed is very similar now to a number of other ODR platforms that I’ve seen amongst a variety of vendors. And I think there’s some consensus among the mediators, the program administrators, the court administrators, and others that these bullets are pretty much standard in all of the platforms.”

MI-Resolve ODR Platform Features

Available free, pre- and post-filing

“In Michigan, the service is free. Maybe uniquely here it’s available pre-filing. You don’t have to wait to file a case to use it. That’s because our network of dispute resolution centers mediate any kind of dispute, whether it’s in court or not. That may be a limitation on the court side, if someone without a filed case in court would be able to use your system before a case is filed.”

Parties register with Contact info

“If you’ve used the Amazon or eBay dispute resolution system, it’s very similar, you register, you put in contact information.”

Have the ability to negotiate among themselves, if in court, a mediator is immediately assigned

“If the case is not in court, they have about seven days to negotiate on their own. If there doesn’t appear to be much action, the mediator gets assigned immediately.”

Asynchronous email type messages

“Just like Judge said earlier, it’s an asynchronous email-type system, where you’re sending, essentially, emails through the system.”

Upload/download documents/photos

“You can upload and download documents and photos.”

Direct access to legal information: MichiganLegalHelp.org

“Access to legal information was critical for us as well. So throughout the system/platform, the…direct access to legal information through MichiganLegalHelp, so from anywhere in the system [inaudible].”

Sign agreements within the system

“Sign agreements in the system.”

Produces forms specific to each court

“Most notably, we’ve tailored the system so that each court document is specific to the court that the case is filed in.”

Eventually will link to e-filing system

“And eventually it will link to our e-filing system.”

Additional Mediation Options

“If the parties want, they can agree to go from the system to mediate through Zoom. When the centers and courts reopen, they can also agree to face to face mediation.

“This is, as Judge said earlier, is our minimum viable product. We look forward to building in more refinements in the future. (Next slide please.)

Current Focus

“Currently our focus is small claims, landlord-tenant, general civil up to $20k, neighborhood cases. We’re going to be building out a domestic relations module that will be focused on post-judgment parenting time, later in June, probably implemented in September.

“One of the things I’m excited to see is whether lawyers will begin to use this in a limited-scope representation capacity. So when a lower-level financial case comes in, instead of declining it and telling people I’m not going to help you, maybe a lawyer could say ‘hey, for the the purpose of representing you in mediation online, I’ll do this for $200-$300. If it works it works, and we’re good.’

“It’s not really marketed for that purpose yet, but I’m looking forward to see if that happens.”

Access to Justice Considerations

“A lot of the impetus for the early development of ODR is Access to Justice considerations, dealing with all the inconveniences that other presenters have talked about today. You don’t need to go to court, you don’t need to take time off work. In downtown Detroit, to park in a parking lot these days, it’s about $35 for 4 hours, you can avoid that.

“Avoiding the stress of the courtroom is a huge consideration that we’re discovering, as the Chief Justice [McCormack] mentioned earlier. We’re finding across the board that witnesses are much more relaxed, children are much more prepared to talk, parties don’t get themselves into such a later as they do when they’re out in the hall of the court anticipating the ominous court proceeding coming up ahead of them.

“There’s a lot of leeway in the system to take time to consult lawyers, legal assistance programs.

“You can literally resolve cases in hours, if you want, or within a couple days, more likely.

“And again, I like to underscore that it’s free for the courts and for the people.

“I really tried to think an awful lot about what other dispute resolution centers might need across the country. I’ve been working with community mediation centers for over 30 years now, so I have a pretty good handle on what we all need to effectively run and provide services to people.

“I think we’ve probably hit about 95% of what 95% of dispute resolution centers would need to open a dispute resolution program.”

Doug Van Epps, Director, Office of Dispute Resolution, Michigan Supreme Court

“So there’s an awful lot of work that has already been done and I appreciate the opportunity to share with you. Thank you very much.”

Learn more about MI-Resolve ODR

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