For decades now, small claims courts have been offering a great service to our society. But now that most of us have a smart-phone, they can do an even better job, as shown by the Franklin County Municipal Court on January 18, 2018.
HOW THINGS WORK IN MOST SMALL CLAIMS COURTS
Imagine that you and I have a landlord v tenant dispute or a dispute (e.g. personal loan, homeowner v contractor, consumer v merchant) for a monetary amount lower than a maximum amount that varies from state to state – e.g. in Hawaii, where I live, that maximum amount is $5,000, in California $10,000, in Tennessee $25,000.
To settle our case, we don’t need an attorney – that’s the main benefit of small claims courts. After one of us files a claim and we know when our case will be heard, we take time off work, drive to court, wait anxiously for our turn in the courtroom – and then we are in for a big surprise. Why? Because, before hearing our case, the small claims court judge will most likely ask us to sit down with a neutral mediator, who will help us communicate, negotiate, and work out an agreement that makes sense to both of us.
From my 21-year experience as mediator in small claims courts, the chances that you and I reach an agreement in mediation and settle our case without a trial are anywhere between 40% and 60%. It is true that when that happens everybody is happy: we (the parties) are happy, and so are the judge and the court personnel, who can take care of cases more complex than ours. But it is also true that by then we have already spent a considerable amount of time and money on our case.
HOW THINGS WORK AT FRANKLIN COUNTY MUNICIPAL COURT
The Franklin County Municipal Court (FCMC) has come up with an innovative solution. They now encourage and help people settle their small claims dispute without going to court: online, right from their smartphone or computer, on their own time, by themselves (and if necessary with the assistance of an online mediator).
The FCMC Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) program for small claims was launched in October 2016. It was developed with Court Innovations, a company specialized in ODR software for courts. And in August 2017, it received an award from the Ohio State Bar Association for “Judicial Innovation”.
In order to explain how their new ODR program for small claims works and, most importantly, how people in Franklin County can benefit from it, FCMC has produced a 47-sec video posted on their website It uses words that are music to most people’s ears: fast, easy, convenient (on your own time, right from your smart-phone or computer), private, free (there is no additional cost). In addition, it explains that if for any reason we want to have our “day in court”, we can still have it: a judge will hear our case and decide how it should be settled.
In short, if you and I live in Franklin County, have a smart-phone and, instead of spending time and money for going to small claims court, would rather settle our dispute online, the FCMC ODR program is there to help us: step by step, from beginning to end. In a sense, it is like our small claims court is now open for us 24/7 – i.e. we can communicate, negotiate, make offers and counteroffers on our own time, without going to court. Not only that. By participating in the FCMC ODR program we have everything to gain and nothing to lose: if we can settle our case online, great; otherwise, we can still go to court and settle it there.
SHARING RESULTS, LESSONS LEARNED, ADVICE FOR OTHER COURTS
On January 18, 2018 an international group of court administrators, judges, mediators and attorneys attended a 1-hour webinar “Online Dispute Resolution: Resources Saved, Justice Served”, hosted by yours truly and presented by:
- Alex Sanchez Esq., Manager of the Small Claims Division and Dispute Resolution Department at FMCM
- MJ Cartwright, CEO of Court Innovations
During the webinar, Sanchez and Cartwright explained in more detail how the FMCM ODR program for small claims works, and its results. Next, they answered numerous questions from the webinar attendees, eager to learn more about: the cost/benefit analysis of the FCMC ODR program; how long it took them to design it; when and how (online) mediators get involved during online dispute resolution process; what kind of response they received not only from the public, but also from small court judges and court personnel; what advice they have for other small claims courts that are also interested to make it easier for people to settle their dispute online.
ODR FOR COURTS: 2 NEW REPORTS, 9 CASE STUDIES, 18 RECOMMENDATIONS
If you visit my website you’ll also find the links to two useful reports published in November 2017 by the Joint Technology Committee, a committee established by the Conference of State Court Administrators, the National Association of Court Management and the National Center of State Courts, in order “To Improve the Administration of Justice Through Technology”.
- Resource Bulletin - It explains not only what ODR exactly means and what it takes, but also how to make it work: for example, it provides 18 recommendations from court personnel who have “lived” an ODR implementation.
- Case Studies in ODR and the Courts: A View from the Front Lines - It describes 9 case studies in the USA, Canada and Europe. One of those case studies is the FCMC ODR Small Claims program presented in our January 18, 2018 webinar.
Giuseppe Leone is a professional mediator living in Hawaii. Past President of ACR Hawaii, he practices and teaches mediation since 1997 – face-to-face and online. Giuseppe is theFounder and Project Manager of “Virtual Mediation Lab”.