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COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force continues work on automated platform for resolving small civil disputes

Senior Editor Top Stories
Sia Baker-Barnes

Sia Baker-Barnes

After a recent meeting with tech executives, a Board of Governors task force is a step closer to deciding whether an automated platform for resolving civil disputes under $1,000 might work in Florida.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force met last month with Matterhorn representatives, Sia Baker-Barnes, the task force co-chair, told fellow board members at an October 1 meeting.

“The task force has been very busy, as you can see,” Baker-Barnes said. “Right now, we’re really in the state of gathering information, statewide, nationwide, and internationally.”

According to a task force report, two Matterhorn representatives performed a live demonstration of platforms already in use in Florida.

Developed by the University of Michigan Law School, the Matterhorn platform claims to have facilitated the resolution of more than 40,000 cases.

According to the report, the 11th Circuit uses a Matterhorn-based system for civil traffic infraction compliance.

“The platform enables a civil traffic defendant to resolve a citation through asynchronous negotiation with a state hearing officer,” the report states. “If the citation cannot be resolved through negotiation, the defendant can proceed to traffic court.”

The 11th Circuit hires attorneys, pursuant to Chapter 318, to serve as hearing officers, according to the report.

The report also refers to two other automated systems in Florida — the “DIY Florida” project managed by the Office of State Courts Administrator, and a small civil claims resolution project in the Ninth Circuit.

The report describes DIY Florida as “an online interview platform” that assists self-represented litigants in completing and filing initial pleadings, and sometimes subsequent motions. Available through the e-Portal, the project handles landlord-tenant and small civil monetary claims, among others, and expects to add family law matters.

The Ninth Circuit program uses a platform designed by Modria, a subsidiary of Tyler Technologies, according to the report. The program facilitates the resolution of claims through negotiation only and is not designed for full case management, according to the report.

The sprawling rural Third Circuit piloted a Tyler Technologies platform, but it was discontinued due to technical difficulties with the Tyler platform, as well as lack of participation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report notes that the ADR Rules and Policy Committee is “involved in the development” of Online Dispute Resolution, or “ODR” platforms. It also mentions that a Supreme Court joint ODR work group, which issued a report at the end of January, “is continuing to study ODR.”

However, “There is no current plan within the state courts system to develop the next generation of online dispute resolution, i.e., a fully online platform for the complete management and disposition of a case,” according to the report.

The task force intends to study a two-tiered system for structured negotiation employed by eBay that includes an online adjudication process led by eBay staff that “leads to a contractually binding outcome.”

Other systems the task force intends to study include a state-sponsored “Civil Resolution Tribunal,” Matterhorn, and an online court that was developed in Utah in 2018 for small claims worth less than $11,000.

The task force has developed a list of counter arguments that include the challenge automated systems pose for transparency and the potential for relegating “small disputes to a lesser form of justice.” Other counter arguments include “whether automated platforms encourage litigiousness,” exclude entire segments of society, or “affect lawyers’ ability to generate business.”

Items still to be considered, according to the report, are a proposed timeline, budget projections, the potential benefit to the public and Bar members, and ways to measure the platform’s performance.

The report quotes from “legal futurist” Richard Susskind’s “Online Courts and the Future of Justice,” which claims that 4 billion human beings have regular access to the internet.

“All in all, it is clear that the pace of technological change is accelerating,” Susskind writes. “Questions remain about how this technology will impact, or improve, the operation of our Courts.”

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