ODR Use in Justice of the Peace Court
October 07, 2021 by
Defendants and plaintiffs alike in small claims cases are usually self-represented. While this saves individuals costly attorney fees, it can add quite a workload to court staff, who spend significant time answering litigant questions. With social distancing protocols and closed court buildings, even more individuals sought ways to conduct court business and handle cases on their own.
"While there has been an increased demand for online options for years, the COVID-19 pandemic made it absolutely necessary to continue providing access to justice for litigants,” said James DePiazza, Denton County, Texas, justice court judge. “Like all courts, we had to find a way to continue processing cases while we were not able to physically allow litigants to enter the court.”
In this pandemic context, Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) emerged as a successful way to empower litigants without added court staff intervention. In helping individuals, ODR also helped courts better manage heavy caseloads. Denton County’s Justice of the Peace Court, Precinct 2, experienced this firsthand implementing ODR during the pandemic and realizing award-winning results.
The Denton County Justice of the Peace Court incorporated ODR into its existing suite of technology solutions. Instead of having people come to court, either in person or via Zoom, they took the entire process online. To overcome barriers with a new approach, the court offered pretrial Zoom hearings to help parties effectively engage in online negotiations on their own.
“Precinct Chief Clerk Janet Jackson had the foresight to reimagine processes in a remote world. She put herself in the shoes of a self-represented litigant and even a bulk filer to find ways to simplify the process for the public. Doing this meant expanded access to justice, as well as more cases being resolved online, all while keeping court staff and litigants safe,” DePiazza added.
After the first few months of ODR availability, more than two-thirds of cases with both parties participating were resolved. In many of these, self-represented defendants negotiated a lower settlement rate than was originally specified in the suit. Since implementation, approximately 25% of small claims cases and 10% of debt claim cases have been settled through ODR. This has, in turn, decreased the number of cases needed to be set for trial. ODR has become a tool for pro-se litigants to save time and resources through pre-trial negotiations and settlements, therefore becoming more active players in their own cases.
Even apart from the pandemic, ODR solutions are critical. The days of having to be in person to interact with the judicial system are gone. Giving litigants the tools to come to an agreement together outside of the courtroom is empowering for all parties. Litigants who can come to an agreement on their own terms and their own timeline are typically more satisfied with the results than having a decision made by a third party.
The Denton County Justice of the Peace Court won a 2021 Tyler Excellence Award for its work to keep staff and litigants safe throughout the pandemic while truly empowering the public and creating new operational efficiencies.