Tracy McElroy

Online Court Q&A #3 – Family and Domestic Cases

Read the interview for Online Courts Questions and Answers with Matterhorn #3. Tracy McElroy, Pinal County (Arizona) Family Conciliation Services Director discusses the Superior Court of Arizona’s online platform for family and domestic cases.

Quick Overview of Pinal County Online Access

  • Site: courtinnovations.com/AZPCSC
  • Launched: 2018
  • Cases Handled Online as of early April, 2020: over 225, close to evenly split between pre- and post-decree cases.
  • Case Types Handled Online:
    • Dissolution of Marriage with and without Children,
    • Legal Separation with and without Children,
    • Establish or Modify Legal Decision-Making,
    • Parenting Time and/or Child Support. 
  • Customer Survey Results: over 80% responded that the site was easy to use and that it was easy to communicate with the mediator.

Interview with Tracy McElroy, Family Conciliation Services Director

Tracy McElroy provided these answers to questions we received on past webinars.

Tracy McElroy

McElroy has a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Saint Martin’s University and received her undergraduate degree from Montana State University in Bozeman. Prior to working for the courts, she served as a Developmental Disabilities Administrator at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services in Steilacoom, WA. She joined the Pinal County Conciliation Services in 2007 as a Counselor/Mediator, rising to Program Manager and then became the Director of Conciliation Services in 2015.

Quick Reference to Questions and Answers

Tell us about the Online Platform Launch

Why did your court want to implement ODR?

To pilot an innovative program and offer services to clients that we have not been able to reach through existing services.  We are constantly trying to improve our overall Access to Justice for Court clients and believe this will be an important way to do that as technology advancements continue in all arenas. 

When did you commence the ODR system and what teething problems did you encounter?

Initial discussions began in March 2018 and we worked through forms and processes regularly for about a year prior to our official launch of the pilot in late March 2019. 

The major issues that required the most time revolved around technicalities – caseflow development for each case type, language for forms, deciding what information was pertinent to obtain from the parties in order to be able to make the process meaningful, different options for indicating resolution, how to close cases, ensuring compliance with state statutes and family court rules, etc. 

How many people were on the project team?

The team involved three people from the Administrative Office of the Courts, three people from our internal Pinal County department, our Family Court Presiding Judge, Court Administrator, and staff from Matterhorn. 

How Does it Work, Exactly?

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

In our process, the facilitator drives the process and is involved throughout. 

The parties must register, submit a copy of their ID and fill out three forms. After the parties register, the facilitator sends a welcome message, explains the process in detail, and then asks some questions about the issues that the parties are trying to resolve. 

The initial welcome goes to all three parties (Facilitator + Petitioner + Respondent).  The parties are informed if they have any concerns they wish to discuss with the facilitator there is a private tab for each of them. 

The parties then use the conversation space to negotiate for up to 10 days.  The facilitator remains involved and asks questions/monitors the conversations. 

If significant safety concerns are brought up, the ODR session is terminated by the facilitator and the parties are set for an in-person non-confidential screening session. 

If the parties reach areas of agreement, the full Consent Decree or partial agreement are prepared and uploaded in the system. 

The parties then review, print, sign in front of a notary, and mail back to our office.  (This is in compliance with Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure, Rule 45).  When the agreement is received by our office, we submit it to the Court for signature, the parties receive their conformed copies in the mail, and any hearings in the matter are vacated. 

**On a TEMPORARY basis during the pandemic, there are some temporary modifications to Rules to allow for electronic signatures in order to comply with social distancing and prevent the need for the parties to travel unnecessarily to banks or postal locations (that may be closed). 

This allows agreements to be signed at home and submitted back through the system, where the facilitator then submits to the Judge for final approval and signature. 

Do the negotiations occur online?

Yes, the parties also have an option for a teleconference if needed as part of the process, but generally all negotiations are done asynchronously online.

Is there a time limit for each step?

Yes, the parties have 5 days to register upon receiving text, email, and written notification. 

Once the clients are registered, the facilitator will contact both parties within 2 business days. 

The clients are instructed to please respond to messages from the facilitator or other party within 48 hours. 

The parties may negotiate for up to 10 days.  Upon completion, the parties sign the agreement and send to Court. 

Total time allotted for each ODR case is 30 days including initial notice through agreement submission to the Court. 

Have you added a mediation component to your platform?

Yes, we use it with the mediator involved from the stweart to finish of the service. 

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

In our court system, there are indicators for each case, so yes, the same person may have multiple cases with different issues and other parties. 

What has your experience been in divorce/separation cases with ODR?

It has been difficult to try to find case types or situations where ODR may fit best. 

Many people are overwhelmed with the Court process and may wish to have in-person sessions as they feel they will get a more personal response to any questions. 

On the other hand, it works very well for less complicated cases where parties may just need assistance with their legal document but do not have major debts and assets at risk.  Dissolution and Separation cases without children and without significant debts and assets seem to do very well in this program. 

I think it’s going to take a culture shift for this to become “main stream” in family cases as they are often highly complex and involve the most important relationships.  Interestingly, when the pandemic arose, Court clients were very excited to have this option and have been working hard to try to resolve their issues in this format. 

Since there are no “in person” services now, for cases without allegations of child abuse or mental competency we are offering the option of telephonic services or ODR.  It will be interesting to see what this does to the overall mindset about ODR and its’ suitability for Family Cases moving forward. 

How did you handle data confidentiality?

We save the information in our secure internal database and periodically clear it from the ODR system.  We have modified our forms to ensure no birthdates or social security numbers are listed in order to further protect clients.  Notes and conversations are shredded on the court side upon completion of a case, though we cannot guarantee that a client did not save any of the information.  The clients cannot access information about each other, just their own information and any shared conversations in the negotiating space. 

Did you add any case types over time?

We started with a very broad focus and have started looking at narrowing down over time. 

We were not sure what case type may be the best fit for ODR, so we put all of our major case types in to start:

  • Dissolution of Marriage with and without Children,
  • Legal Separation with and without Children,
  • Establish or Modify Legal Decision-Making,
  • Parenting Time and/or Child Support. 

Did you change your case eligibility criteria over time?

Yes, we have found that this does not appear to be the best service for cases when child abuse and significant parental fitness issues are alleged, or for cases where there are extensive debts and assets that may require more legal processes to resolve. 

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

How many staff monitor and/or mediate online?

We have two administrative staff assigned to screen and set cases for ODR and four mediators that rotate cases.  After a case is set, the admin staff sends an email to the mediator and then the mediator takes over monitoring of the case at that point and checks in at least twice per day. 

Education and Outreach

What type of notification does a litigant receive to learn about this option?

The litigant receives notification via a formal Court Notice in the mail and via email.  After they receive the Notice, they then receive a text and email notification directly from the ODR platform with a welcome and instructions on how to register. 

How have you let people know that this option is available for them?

This is an area that we did not spend enough time on.  There was a press release, but we did not spend enough time letting the community know about the program in advance.  People are now notified via phone and email and this is posted as a service on our website.  We have some posters and business cards that we hand out, but are thinking of developing more materials in order to let people know about the service. 

Integrations

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

The system is a stand alone at this point and requires entering the information in the separate system.  It is hoped that as more counties begin using the system, there may be some movement towards integrating with our court case management system in order to more efficiently process cases from start to finish.

Costs

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

We have chosen to cover the cost so there is no cost to the end user.  In a rural county with many self-represented litigants, we do our best to offer as many services as possible at little to no cost to improve access to justice. 

Outcomes and Metrics

What was the % increase in number of cases closed successfully after implementing ODR?

We have not seen a significant change yet.  We have always had a high agreement rate with other services, so it is taking some time to see the impact of ODR.  Most pilot programs take 2-3 years to see the results due to having to tweak the process over time.  At this point, we are still in year 1.  I expect to see significant changes by Spring 2021. 

What proportion of defendants/cases are using ODR?

We are using ODR in approximately 20% of our Family Law Cases. 

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