Online Dispute Resolution

Perspectives to Support Successful Implementation and Outcomes in Court Proceedings

by Amanda R. Witwer, Lynn Langton, Duren Banks, Dulani Woods, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Brian A. Jackson

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Research Questions

  1. In which categories of interactions could ODR lead to more just (i.e., more accessible, fair, and transparent) outcomes, and in which categories might it not be suitable?
  2. What are the benefits of ODR, not just for individual litigants and court practitioners but also for the structure and nature of judicial systems?
  3. What are the barriers to ODR access and adoption?

Online dispute resolution (ODR) provides a forum for court matters to be resolved through a public-facing digital space as opposed to through in-person court proceedings. Early court ODR adopters implemented these programs with small claims, eviction proceedings, traffic cases, and other selected court matters as a means to address rising case volumes and tightening budgets while also expanding access to justice for populations that might not have ready access to courthouses. In 2020, as courthouses and other public and private in-person facilities throughout the United States closed in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the need for virtual options to keep cases moving and administer justice accelerated significantly, as did the willingness of court stakeholders to consider and implement ODR for a wider variety of legal matters.

The National Institute of Justice, supported by RTI International and the RAND Corporation, convened a virtual panel in May 2020 on ODR and other virtual platforms for case navigation and resolution. The ODR panel members discussed issues relating to the design and implementation of ODR programs and platforms, strategies to improve access to justice, opportunities to engage potential ODR users, and need for the rigorous research and evaluation of ODR programs.

Key Findings

ODR can be a tool for replicating in-person court processes, but it also provides an opportunity to reimagine how to perform some processes better

  • Participants voiced the need for guidance from objective sources to provide documentation on what ODR features are currently available, which features are critical, and what options are technologically feasible. Participants also noted the need for guidance around why, when, and how to reimagine existing court processes in an online forum.

ODR could remove access-to-justice barriers, but the potential barriers to engagement also need to be better understood

  • Courts need guidance to understand the challenges for self-represented litigants in navigating the system and the points at which all litigants are more likely to disengage from the process.
  • Some limited — but promising — results indicate that ODR programs have the potential to reduce case processing time, make the use of court resources more efficient, and result in more-satisfactory outcomes for litigants, such as a reduction in the number of small claims or evictions proceedings that result in default.
  • Participants expressed the need for data collection standards related to gathering demographic information, which is critical for understanding both access to the platform for different types of litigants and consistency in outcomes across different demographic groups. The impacts of ODR should be assessed across a broad variety of metrics, such as whether and how ODR results in more timely resolution of disputes.

Recommendations

  • Approaches should be provided for courts to develop an understanding of litigants' needs.
  • Guidance should be provided on how to effectively communicate the requirements for due process and other legal protections in the ODR platform.
  • Guidance should be developed for incorporating security and privacy considerations into the adoption and administration of an ODR system.
  • Ensure that ODR platforms are mobile-friendly to improve access for litigants who face barriers to engaging in these processes (e.g., because of rural locations, limited internet access, lack of access to transportation).
  • A set of key principles and best practices for designing ODR systems should be developed that gives primacy to the experiences of litigants.
  • Standards for ODR systems should be developed that emphasize user-centered design and features, including mobile-accessible ODR systems that do not require users to have an email address.
  • Develop policies, guidelines, tools, or a process to ensure equal access for judges, attorneys, and facilitators through ODR.
  • Research should be conducted on the benefits of ODR systems for litigants and court systems.
  • A set of metrics should be developed that captures key indicators of ODR success, such as litigant engagement and allocation of court resources.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was supported by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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