By Emma Cueto | September 13, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT
The Innovation for Justice program at the University of Arizona recommended in a report released on Sept. 8 that Utah streamline its registration process, make document sharing easier, and provide more guidance to users trying to navigate the system in order to make the ODR program more accessible to Utahans facing small claims suits.
These changes should be considered and implemented before the current pilot program expands statewide later this year, the report recommended.
“A majority of participants reported frustration on account of their inability to easily find information about ODR, including guidance about how it worked, whether participation was mandatory, and how to contact someone for more assistance,” the authors noted.
Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas told Law360 that the court is eager to make the changes recommended by the Innovation for Justice researchers and are always looking to improve service.
“The ability to get that kind of detailed feedback was just a gold mine,” Justice Himonas said of the research. “We’ll apply it not only across the ODR app but our other applications as well.”
The state courts also include other self-help resources on their website, including help preparing documents for court.
Utah was the first state in the country to create its own online dispute resolution system, which was intended to boost participation in small claims cases and generally facilitate more positive and substantive resolutions to such disputes.
As noted in the Innovation for Justice report, outside of domestic cases, at least one part in most civil legal actions represents themselves without an attorney. Moreover, in many civil cases, including a majority of debt collection suits, people frequently fail to respond to a summons and cases are decided by default.
One goal of online dispute resolution programs is to make it easier for people to respond by allowing them to do so remotely, rather than going to a courthouse.
The Utah program, which launched in 2018, is a pilot program that covers West Valley City, the state’s second-largest city, and two other jurisdictions. Under the terms of the program, ODR is the default platform for small claims cases in those jurisdictions, though parties can choose to opt out.
Stacy Butler of the Innovation for Justice program said that the group chose to study Utah’s system because the state was the only one in the U.S. that built their own program, rather than purchasing software “off the shelf.” That meant that the state can implement any suggestions by the team directly, she said.
The state also welcomed the researchers, according to Justice Himonas, and was eager to share data. For the Utah courts, the research was a chance to get information it wouldn’t normally have the funding to obtain itself, while for Butler and her team it was a chance to perform research not normally conducted.
“[Online dispute resolution] is this emerging approach to access to justice that is at the intersection of law and technology, and has so much hope and promise,” Butler said. “But I was fascinated that no one has run a [user experience] test on an online dispute resolution platform in the U.S. to evaluate whether it was going to work for the people who use it.”
The Utah program, she said, was started with important goals by people who have good intentions and a desire to improve access for people in the state.
According to the Innovation for Justice report, however, statistics show that only about 36% of defendants in small claims cases actually log into the system, and those that do frequently require technical support.
In conducting an independent evaluation of the program, researchers found that study participants had difficulty typing the case-sensitive web address included in the paper summons for a small claims case, and that only about 12% of participants were able to successfully complete the registration process on their own.
Participants were also skeptical of the look of the website and of the summons, and suggested that both should have the state seal or otherwise appear more officials. Other participant suggestions included streamlining the frequently asked questions page, adding a progress bar or step counter when performing tasks, and rewriting the summons in plain language to make the legal significance more obvious.
Researchers also tested a redesigned version of the ODR platform based on this feedback, which significantly improved the number of people who were able to create an account and perform the necessary tasks through the site.
Despite the negative feedback on the specific design and function of the Utah website, however, researchers found that participants in the study were receptive to the idea of an online platform for handling small claims cases.
“Users are ready for online courts,” researchers wrote. “When asked whether they would prefer to access a website or physically appear at the courthouse to resolve a dispute, all but one of the participants across both rounds of testing responded with a preference for a website. The challenge — and opportunity — now is to integrate human-centered design with the expansion of ODR.”
Butler said that she’s less focused on the issues with the pilot program and more interested in ways to make the system better, especially as technology becomes more common in courts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Things are moving so fast now,” she said. “A lot of that is going to stick, I think. So this is the time to listen to court users.”