Online Court Q&A #2 – Civil Small Claims Cases

Read the interview for Online Courts Questions and Answers with Matterhorn #2. Alex Sanchez of the Franklin County Municipal Court discusses the court’s online platform for City Tax and Small Claims resolution.

Quick Overview Franklin County Municipal Court Online Access

  • Site: courtinnovations.com/OHFCMC
  • Launched: 2016
  • Cases Handled Online as of early April, 2020: 1,400+
  • Case Types Handled Online:
    • City Tax Cases
    • Small Claims
  • Customer Survey Results: Over 90% said they felt they were treated with respect and had an opportunity to be heard.

Interview with Alex Sanchez, Franklin County Small Claims and Dispute Resolution Division

Alex Sanchez, Manager and Mediator, Small Claims and Dispute Resolution, Franklin County Municipal Court provided these answers to questions we received on past webinars as well as questions he often hears from curious court staff.

Alex is a graduate of the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and received his undergraduate degree from Loyola Marymount University. Prior to joining the municipal court, Alex worked with the State of Ohio, The Ohio State University, and nonprofit organizations across the country. In addition to overseeing the Small Claims Division and Dispute Resolution Department for the Franklin County Municipal Court, Alex mediates all civil case types.  Alex led the launch of the first court-connected small claims online dispute resolution platform in the United States to increase access to civil social justice. Through his efforts and the efforts of his team the court has resolved over 1,400 cases online.

Quick Reference to Questions and Answers

  • Tell us about the Online Platform Launch
    • Why did your court want to implement ODR?
    • When did your court start using ODR and what problems did you encounter?
    • Did you need any special approval to launch ODR?
    • Who was involved in the project design?
    • What was the early feedback and what were the case outcomes for users?
  • How does it work, exactly?
    • Would you explain a bit of the process once someone uses the site?
    • Do the negotiations occur online?
    • Is there a time limit for each step?
    • Have you used ODR for other case types?
    • Is your system compatible with all browsers and operating systems?
    • If a party has multiple cases, do they need to apply multiple times?
    • How did you handle data confidentiality?
    • Did you add any features over time?
  • What’s the effort to maintain and monitor the online platform?
    • How many staff monitor and/or mediate online?
    • How much time are court staff spending on this process?
  • How much education and outreach have you done?
    • Do you think people have a better understanding of the outcome of their case when they use ODR? 
    • What type of notification does a litigant receive to learn about ODR? Is it included in a summons or other notice?  
    • Do users have to be tech-savy to use ODR?
  • What about validation?
    • Are there concerns that you are dealing with the correct individual?
  • Is there an integration with your court case management system?
    • How does the site fit with the court’s case management system?
  • What’s the cost?
    • Who bears the cost of this program, the court or the end-users?
    • Any recommendations for courts that want to use ODR but are concerned about cost or might not have a dispute resolution department?
  • What Outcomes and Metrics do you track?
    • What has your experience been across various case types?
    • What proportion of defendants/cases are using ODR?
    • Do you have any data on the income levels of individuals using ODR?
    • What were the cost savings after implementing ODR?
    • How much time has implementing ODR saved the court staff?
    • What is the feedback using this for small claims and civil cases?
    • Has the platform improved access to justice?

Tell us about the Online Platform Launch

Why did your court want to implement ODR?

We knew from our own experience in small claims cases and in mediations that when people participate in the legal process their outcomes tend to be more positive than those that do not.  At the time, no court in the United States had launched a small claims ODR platform. We saw ODR as an opportunity to improve access to court services and resolve cases efficiently. We had three main goals for our pilot:

  1. See if small claims and other civil cases could be resolved online through voluntary negotiation;
  2. Increase the number of individuals participating in the court process; and
  3. Increase the number of positive case outcomes.  

We started with small claims cases filed by the City of Columbus Division of Income Tax.  The City is the highest volume filer in our Small Claims Division and, prior to launch, had the highest highest default judgment rate for non-appearances by defendants at trial.  We wanted our ODR platform to be a resource where individuals could resolve cases outside of a courtroom on their own time in a way that worked best for them wherever they might be.  The first iteration of the platform was direct party-to-party negotiation. Once the defendants received the notice, summons, and ODR info card, they could go online to resolve the case.

When did your court start using ODR and what problems did you encounter?

We officially launched October, 2016.  We did not encounter any technical or logistical problems.  That was primarily due to the early design work by the Matterhorn team in conjunction with our staff and stakeholders.  We mapped out the workflow from the user’s perspective to identify any potential service gaps or technical problems.

The only issues we encounter are mainly due to human error; sometimes users mistype their email address or case number, which causes a little bit of delay, but nothing critical because email addresses and case numbers aren’t required to initiate ODR.

Did you need any special approval to launch ODR?

We did not need any type of special approval or need to go through any legislative process for our court to use ODR. The ODR platform does not replace the traditional trial/legal process.  It’s important to note that our ODR platform is completely voluntary, no one is forced to use ODR. It is simply another option for parties to participate in negotiation/mediation through our court.  Another important reason was that the cost to our court for ODR was significantly less than traditional in-person mediation services. As a result, we could offer ODR at no cost to users.  

Who was involved in the project design?

The initial design team consisted of a few court staff and Court Innovations developers.   We wanted to create a brand new experience that was a true alternative to the traditional court process.   Court Innovations had an existing framework in place for traffic cases. We were able to take features from that framework and design a platform that leveraged a form of technology many people are familiar with: text messaging.  

We invited potential users to test the platform and provide feedback.  Based on that feedback we launched our initial ODR platform. We did not receive any calls or questions from users that were unable to access the portal.  We’re currently on our second iteration and in the design stage for the third. We are consistently responding to user experiences and feedback. We want to provide the most stress-free and streamlined experience possible.

What was the early feedback and what were the case outcomes for users?

Users appreciated quick responses that addressed their needs.  One user wrote in a survey response,

“[The] City attorney was very accommodating and helpful. Please continue to show kindness, respect, and cooperation, the human elements that make this process work so well.” 

Public feedback on the system

I think there is a common misconception that online dispute resolution cannot adequately replicate the in-person experience. We have found the exact opposite. In many cases, the online process exceeds expectations.  Users report positive perceptions of fairness and justice and their eventual case outcomes are positive as well.

  • During our first-year pilot, 100 out of 135 users (74%) reached voluntary agreements that resolved their cases without judicial intervention. 
  • That was a significant change over the historical outcomes pre-ODR, where only 46% of cases were voluntarily resolved outside a courtroom.
  • The positive case outcomes have been consistent the past four years; more than 3 out of 4 users resolve their case online without having to come to court.
City of Columbus Division of Income Tax Case Dispositions by Year (graph)
Year201120122013201420152016201720182019
Default Judgment7471,1811,0841,5751,0411,056922823469
Voluntary Dismissal4806306351,2399349081,089916545
Agreed Judgment Entry901289234532625718813492
Total Cases1,3291,9531,8253,1932,3112,2242,2061,8841,292
City of Columbus Division of Income Tax Case Dispositions by Year (table)

How does it work, exactly?

Would you explain a bit of the process once someone uses the site?

Users that visit the ODR site can read FAQs about the process and watch general explainer videos about small claims and mediation.  At that point, a user can self-select to use ODR. The user is then walked-through a few intake questions upon registration. The intake questions help orient the user to the system, explain the process, and confirm that ODR is available for the case type. 

Direct online negotiation is available for City Tax cases and mediation is available for all other civil case types.  For city tax cases, the user is paired with the city attorney assigned to the case and the parties can exchange information asynchronously and negotiate until an agreement is reached or a party decides to end negotiations and move forward in court.

For all other civil cases, users communicate privately with a mediator online before the mediator contacts an opposing party to initiate mediation.

Users communicate in private “negotiation spaces” where messages and uploaded documents may be exchanged.

Regardless of the case type, if an agreement is reached the mediator, or the city attorney if it’s a tax case, can draft an agreement for the parties to sign.  The ODR platform has an electronic signature feature that streamlines the signature exchange process. If the agreement needs to be filed in court the mediator, or the city tax attorney, can submit it in hardcopy or electronically.  

Do the negotiations occur online?

All negotiations occur online for city tax cases.  For other case types, negotiations occur online only if both parties self-select to use the online process.  Some parties want to participate online, others prefer to talk by phone. A limited number of participants prefer to meet with a mediator in person.  

Is there a time limit for each step?

We do not impose any artificial ODR time restrictions on the parties.  The parties are free to negotiate and mediate until a scheduled hearing date or some other pre-existing date set by the court

Whenever a message is sent through the ODR platform the recipient receives an email or an SMS text message notification with a link to the website.  We want the ODR process to be as quick or as flexible as the parties need. Some ODR cases are resolved within minutes, others are resolved over a period of weeks depending on party availability.  

Have you used ODR for other case types?

Our ODR platform is available for all civil case types that are heard in our municipal court.  The primary case types are debt collection, including personal loans and credit card accounts, and landlord-tenant disputes.  Cases involving domestic relations are heard by the common pleas court and that court’s mediation program.

Is your system compatible with all browsers and operating systems?

Our court’s ODR platform is completely web-based.  So long as someone can access a website they can use ODR.  The learning curve is not steep. If you have ever sent a text message or an email in the past then the ODR platform should feel very familiar and comfortable to you.

If a party has multiple cases, do they need to apply multiple times?

Each case has its own negotiation space.  Users only need to register once and to create an unlimited number of negotiation spaces for different cases.  Each case will have a unique set of intake questions because the parties and facts may be different.

Does the online system handle language access issues?  Or are they simply directed to come to court for accommodation?

Courts in our state are required to provide court-connected language assistance for its services.  As a result, the ODR system does not provide any translation of user messages. Anyone that needs language assistance would need to request interpreter services through the court by phone, email, or in-person. The court provides language assistance to parties at no cost.  Many court-connected interpreters are available by phone, but some languages require in-person assistance at the court.

How did you handle data confidentiality?

All user data is securely stored on Court Innovations servers, off-site.  Here’s more information about the security of Matterhorn.

Once a negotiation or mediation is completed or terminated the messages are no longer accessible to the parties.  Fully signed agreements are accessible even after a mediation is completed and a negotiation space is closed.

Did you add any features over time?

While we started with direct negotiation between parties in small claims tax cases, individuals in other case types could still submit a mediation request through the ODR system.  In 2018 the platform was extended to allow multi-party mediation. 

What’s the effort to maintain and monitor the online platform?

How many staff monitor and/or mediate online?

We currently have two staff members that monitor and mediate cases.  The time-shifting nature of ODR allows one person to mediate multiple active cases at the same, something that is not possible with a synchronous/in-person process.

How much time are court staff spending on this process?

Court staff spend minimal time on the direct negotiation arm of the ODR platform. The parties themselves drive the process from beginning to end. Sometimes a case number or email address is misentered by a party but that is a quick edit staff can make.

Education and Outreach

Do you think people have a better understanding of the outcome of their case when they use ODR? 

Because users are active participants in the case resolution process, they not only have a better understanding of the outcome of their case, they also learn how they can directly impact that outcome through negotiation and mediation.  Most parties in small claims cases have never participated in a legal proceeding before. They are unfamiliar with the process as well as options available to resolve a case outside of a courtroom. By accessing our ODR platform, plaintiffs and defendants alike can ask procedural questions and use a mediator as a resource to think through options for negotiation and settlement.

Sometimes individuals experience financial hardship due to a change in income, health, or other personal situation outside of their control. As a result, that person may accumulate debt across multiple creditors.  I am happy when someone takes advantage of our ODR platform to resolve a case, has a good experience, and then takes advantage of it again to resolve another lawsuit. We also have a lot of word-of-mouth referrals. That tells me the platform works: it empowers individuals to take an active role in resolving their case, and that participation leads to positive outcomes for that individual and the court.

What type of notification does a litigant receive to learn about ODR? Is it included in a summons or other notice?  

Plaintiffs and defendants have access to our ODR platform and either can initiate the negotiation/mediation process.  The primary way parties learn about ODR is through the notice and summons they receive from the court. In addition to the day and time of their hearing, parties receive information about alternatives, including online dispute resolution. We have a link on our small claims website as well.

Information sent to parties about the opportunity for ODR

Do users have to be tech-savy to use ODR?

Our ODR platform is web-based, meaning it’s accessible via a website.  Users do not need to download any software or have any specific operating system.  So long as a potential user has access to the internet using a computer, smartphone, tablet, or other mobile device, then that person can use ODR.  Beyond that, the actual “negotiation space” is very straightforward and is most similar to common text messaging apps. Negotiation spaces are similar to chat rooms: parties can message each other in a shared negotiation space, or they can each message a mediator separately in a private mediator space.  A mediator can message parties in the shared and private spaces.

If an agreement is reached, the site opens a signature screen similar to credit card signature screens at supermarket and coffee shop check-out. Parties can use a finger, stylus, or mouse, to enter their signature to finalize the agreement.

Validation

Are there concerns that you are dealing with the correct individual?

Just like in-person hearings and mediations in civil cases we do not ask individuals to provide proof of identity before entering the court.  Because individuals self-select to use the ODR platform, provide identifying information about themselves (name, address, email, phone number), and information about the other party and the nature of their case, we do not have concerns that someone is impersonating another person.

Online mediations are quicker than in-person or phone mediations when you add up the number of back-and-forth messages. I’ve noticed that parties are more direct and to the point when communicating online. I think it goes back to the psychology of ODR; there’s no need or reason to puff, bluff, or argue. Though online mediations may span multiple days or weeks, messages aren’t necessarily sent everyday.  Sometimes there are gaps in time where parties are either reflecting or doing other things, which is exactly what we want. We want parties to access the ODR platform on their own time and, most importantly, be comfortable.

Integrations

How does the site fit with the court’s case management system?

Our ODR platform is a standalone product. Because we’re dealing with private negotiation and mediation there isn’t a need to connect to our court’s case management system, which can save internal resources.  If an agreement needs to be filed with the court that agreement can be mailed to the court or uploaded through the clerk’s e-filing system.

Though the platform can integrate with our case management system we haven’t had the need, yet.

Costs

Who bears the cost of this program, the court or the end-users?

The court covers the cost of the ODR platform.  Though the court could pass on costs through filing fees or registration charges we wanted to create a true alternative to the traditional court process where people thought to themselves, “Why not.” 

Any recommendations for courts that want to use ODR but are concerned about cost or might not have a dispute resolution department?

We encourage courts to go for it. Parties love the option and the feedback and data show it works.  Courts can design and customize their own ODR solution to work for their needs or budgets. We designed our platform to facilitate high-volume cases where parties resolve their cases privately without staff intervention (direct party-to-party negotiation), and to facilitate more complex facilitated negotiations (online mediation).

We started with a subset of cases and expanded once we proved the concept.  I would encourage courts to do the same thing. Start with a subset of cases, maybe where the same party is on multiple cases (like our city tax cases), and then expand as necessary.

Outcomes and Metrics

What has your experience been across various case types?

I did not expect the results that the ODR platform has produced.  Nearly 8 out of every 10 cases with at least one party using the ODR platform have resulted in agreements and positive case dispositions. 

For the small claims tax cases, more than 3 out of every 4 are resolved online in less than two weeks on average.

For all other case types in 2019, including debt collection and landlord-tenant, 82% of cases with a party using ODR resulted in an agreement that resolved the case. 

To put those numbers in perspective, small claims city tax cases are not cases that are referred to mediation, so every agreement matters. For all other case types, the 82% resolution rate compares favorably to mediations conducted in-person and by phone, that have resolution rates that hover around 51%. 

The accessibility and flexibility of ODR is one reason why cases are resolved at a higher rate than traditional dispute resolution processes.  Another reason is psychological. Online dispute resolution eliminates the stress and anxiety of in-person interactions. Without the fear of argument or public speaking, parties are in a better position to think clearly and creatively.

In a traditional mediation environment parties sit together in the same room with a mediator.  The stress of the environment and the rush caused by time limitations causes parties to either fight, shutdown, or leave the mediation (the fight, freeze, or flight response).  Without that stress, parties, and even the mediator, are in a better position to process information, make decisions, and meaningfully participate in negotiations.  

Online dispute resolution also allows parties to reflect on what’s been messaged online and what could be messaged in the future.  Reflection is a luxury in in-person mediations. With ODR parties can sleep on a proposal, consult with others, and think about the benefits of agreement terms.  

What proportion of defendants/cases are using ODR?

The most recent year we have complete data for is 2018.  That year, 11% of city tax defendants that resolved their case used ODR.  For all other case types, 13% of defendants/cases referred to mediation were resolved using ODR.  

Do you have any data on the income levels of individuals using ODR?

We have about four years of data for our small claims tax platform.  Based on Census tract information for each of the defendants in Franklin County, Ohio,

  • 39% of defendants were identified as having low-to-moderate incomes and
  • 44% were identified as having middle-to-upper incomes.
  • A total of 17% of users resided outside of the county. 
  • Low-to-moderate income Census tracts tended to have a higher than average percentage of minority residents.
  • Of the total defendants participating in ODR, about
    • 50% were identified as male,
    • 40% female, and
    • 2% were not identifiable.
  • Among all defendants, 90% were individuals, 10% were businesses.

For our other civil case types, we’ve created a visualization showing the differences between cases that are mediated online, mediated in-person/phone, and litigated without mediation: case visualization.

What were the cost savings after implementing ODR?

There were two types of cost savings: savings to the parties and savings to the court. 

Our city tax data is the most comprehensive and illustrates the savings.

  • A total of $423,498.41 was at issue in the tax cases negotiated using ODR. 
  • A total of $200,378.83 across 230 dismissed cases was either recovered by the income tax division through voluntary payment or reduced based on information exchanged during negotiation. 
  • An additional $104,371.26 at issue in 62 cases is being recovered through long-term payment plans (agreed judgment entries).
  • For the City, a recent study showed that Columbus is one of the most tax reliant cities in Ohio, so every dollar recovered matters. 
  • For defendants, a payment plan or reduction of tax liability lessens financial strain and avoids the possibility of garnishments.  

For the court, each tax case resolved with a dismissal or agreed judgment entry results in the direct payment of court costs to the Clerk of Court.  Because the City of Columbus is a government entity its court costs are not collected at the time of filing, they are deferred and paid by the defendant either voluntarily or through garnishments.  The filing fee for small claims cases in our court is $78. That means a total of $22,698 was paid to the Clerk through cases resolved online.  

For all other case types, the results were similar.  Parties that reached agreement online were able to avoid further financial loss, risks associated with trial, and the consequences of judgments.

How much time has implementing ODR saved the court staff?

I don’t know if ODR has saved staff time as much as it has allowed staff to leverage time to resolve more cases

The time-shifting nature of asynchronous ODR allows one mediator to simultaneously facilitate negotiations in multiple cases, something that is not possible otherwise.  That allows staff and the court to do more with existing resources.

What is the feedback using this for small claims and civil cases?

We collect user feedback informally during negotiation/mediation and formally through anonymous user surveys emailed to each ODR participant after a negotiation space is closed.  Our survey questions focus on the user experience and perceptions of justice. We also ask demographic related questions to gauge who is using the platform. Our survey questions and responses are available to view online.

Has the platform improved access to justice?

Individuals from across all demographics (age, race, ethnicity, income, gender) have accessed our ODR platform.  Prior to launch, party-to-party direct negotiation was limited to court hallways. Mediation was similarly limited to specific dates and times, but parties could participate in-person or by phone.  For many, appearing in court on a specific date and time is not easy. Whether due to personal, financial, or health-related reasons, many people cannot make it to court and miss an opportunity to amicably resolve their case.  The ODR platform creates one more avenue for accessing the court and its dispute resolution services. Parties can access the website at any time wherever they may be. The flexibility has resulted in an increase in the number of individuals participating in the legal process and in the number of positive case outcomes.

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