Court Innovations: tech-based platform for improving court users’ experience

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There is an interesting court redesign organization that’s come out of the University of Michigan Law School.  There is an Online Court Project that Univ. of Michigan has funded, and developed through the company Court Innovations, Inc.

I had written about it previously when my colleague Briane had mentioned an initial write-up of it on University of Michgan’s site.  Now the project has been piloted in two different Michigan courts, after having spun out of the Law School into the start-up Court Innovations.

The project is building a tech-based platform for litigants to resolve their problems online, rather than having to come into court.

Court Innovations is developing and implementing online negotiation systems for courts and constituents.

Court Innovations’ online solutions enable you to extend your court to:

Provide fast, efficient, online resolution options for litigants charged with relatively minor offenses.

Help litigants with outstanding issues to understand their options and navigate the court online without needing to hire an attorney.

We are setting up our technology in courts today – contact us to learn more about how our innovative approach can extend your court to increase access to justice in your community.

The platform will use Online Dispute Resolution patterns to have litigants interact with the court using online technology.  People who face relatively small charges can contact judges and prosecutors to try to resolve their case without having to come physically to court.Court Innovations - On;ine court project - open law lab - Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 2.00.22 PM

Right now, the Project lets the user try to negotiate a warrant or a traffic ticket.

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If the user doesn’t want to negotiate, they can pay the fine directly, or opt to go to court.  They can also learn more about their options to make better choices & prep.

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Michigan Law’s publication The Law Quandrangle has posted an article, “Transforming What It Means to ‘Go to Court’.” describing the formation of the Project & its development.

By Jared Wadley and Katie Vloet

What if your day in court didn’t have to be in court?

That’s the idea that led Michigan Law Professor J.J. Prescott and Ben Gubernick, ’11, his former student, to invent a first-of-its-kind technology that helps people who have been charged with minor offenses interact with courts online, at any time of day, without needing to hire an attorney.

The software provides a way for litigants with issues ranging from unpaid fines to minor criminal or civil infractions, including traffic tickets, to communicate directly with judges and prosecutors to find mutually agreeable ways to resolve their cases.

Ben Gubernick, ‘11; CEO MJ Cartwright; and Prof. J.J. Prescott.

“When you look at how many cases courts process, you realize online interaction and resolution is the next frontier. Courts have so much potential to influence people’s lives for the better,” Prescott says. “The challenge is removing barriers to access while making the most of judicial and prosecutorial wisdom and experience. We wanted to make sure the software wouldn’t interfere with everything good that courts are already doing.”

Many people’s jobs don’t give them the flexibility to go to court during regular business hours, Prescott points out. And appearing in court for a minor infraction is time-consuming for judges, prosecutors, and the person charged with an infraction. “A typical scenario is that you wait four hours to see someone and you exchange five words,” he says.

While the online technology saves time for everyone involved, it conversely gives judges and prosecutors more time to learn about the person before making a ruling. Is the defendant, say, very likely or only somewhat likely to get another speeding ticket in the next year? “In the virtual environment, we can give prosecutors and judges more information than they would normally have within their reach about a person, and it can inform their decision making,” Gubernick says.

In-person interaction, of course, remains necessary for a lot of work courts do, Gubernick says. “This technology targets only those cases where online interaction can be faster, fairer, and less costly for everyone involved.

“Our goal is really to increase access to justice.”

“Proof that entrepreneurial ideas are flourishing at Michigan Law””

The project is part of the Global Challenges arm of U-M’s Third Century Initiative, a $50 million, five-year program that is leveraging the University’s interdisciplinary expertise to tackle some of society’s most pressing problems—while also creating learning opportunities for students.

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The technology is being piloted at the 14A District Court in Michigan’s Washtenaw County and the 74th District Court in Bay County. Response from the technology’s users has been positive. “This system is working so well for our court that I would like to see it expanded to all the other courts,” says Thomas Truesdell, magistrate of 14A District Court and a board member of the Michigan Association of District Court Magistrates.

With funding through U-M’s Third Century Initiative in place for the next two years, Prescott’s team is preparing to scale the technology. However, the team is thinking far beyond the next few years. Prescott already has worked with U-M Technology Transfer to create Court Innovations Inc., a startup that will provide support and maintenance for the software during the project and grow the business opportunities generated going forward.

The developers and U-M believe the technology can go national. “Court Innovations was founded to ensure post-project sustainability,” says MJ Cartwright, the company’s CEO. “Our job over the next two years is to work with courts and state government groups to lay the foundation for the technology’s complete transition from U-M-based research and development into a commercial solution that can continue to scale and grow in Michigan and across the nation.”

Ken Nisbet, associate vice president for research at U-M Technology Transfer, says the company has leveraged Tech Transfer’s Venture Center, including the Venture Accelerator, to create a compelling value proposition to improve the court system. “This new venture is proof,” Nisbet says, “that entrepreneurial ideas are flourishing at Michigan Law.”

Prescott is pleased with the support from the Law School and the University as a whole. “At the Law School, we’re really expanding in the entrepreneurial arena,” Prescott says. “The great thing about being at a major research institution like U-M is that we are able to work closely with top people in all of the fields that matter to the success of the project—the statistics department, the Ross School of Business, the School of Information, the Ford School of Public Policy—about data modeling, increasing court efficiency, improving the user experience, and ensuring that litigants come away from the process understanding it and feeling that they’ve been fairly treated. It’s great to see the University not just supporting the hard sciences but also broadly interdisciplinary efforts like ours that emerge from the social sciences.”

Gubernick says the entrepreneurial aspects attracted him to the project. “I liked the idea of finding a solution to a problem in the real world,” he says. “And, really, that’s what entrepreneurship is all about—recognizing a problem, and finding a solution that no one has thought of.”

Here’s an article from Washetenaw County in Michigan, about one of the programs — an online dispute system for resolving traffic tickets.

By Jo Mathis, Legal News, October 2014

If you’ve ever spent an entire morning sitting in a packed courtroom to negotiate an outstanding parking or traffic ticket, you’ll appreciate a new system intended to nudge the courts closer to modern times.
The Online Court Project, funded by the University of Michigan and developed by Court Innovations, Inc., allows citizens who’ve received minor civil infractions or traffic tickets to seek reduced charges or other solutions to their problems online.
The program is currently being piloted in 14-A1 District Court, which covers Pittsfield Township. Eligible individuals simply go to the Court Innovations’ website at https://www.courtinnovations.com/14A1/traffic14A1/index, type in the information, and wait for the prosecutor and court decision-makers at the other end to examine their driving record and make a decision.
“The goal is to make the whole process easier for everybody on both sides, and at the same time, ensure that people are able to access the courts if they have concerns,” said Michigan Law Professor J.J. Prescott, who led the team that designed the new system. “That’s what courts are there for—to resolve disputes while at the same time making sure that people get a fair opportunity to have their concerns addressed.”
In-person meetings with a judge or magistrate are not only time-consuming, intimidating, and confusing—they’re often unnecessary, and requiring them can be counterproductive, if people decide not to use the courts as a result, Prescott said. And while litigants can already pay fines online, those with concerns about their case must go to court and face a tedious process that involves travel, parking, and taking time off work.
“We’re providing a platform that allows litigants and decision-makers to negotiate in a very efficient and effective way. For many minor court issues, a face-to-face meeting with a judge or prosecutor simply doesn’t improve the outcome for either side. Just as ATM machines allow you to skip seeing a bank teller during business hours, technology can help streamline and improve much of what courts do,” said Prescott.
At 14-A District Court, Magistrate A. Thomas Truesdell approves or denies the litigants’ requests after the Pittsfield Township police do the same. Truesdell, who says he typically follows the recommendation of police, is a big fan of the new Online Court Project, which has been in place for six months now.
The bottom-line goal, he said, is to reduce some of the tickets down to “impeding traffic,” which adds no points and therefore, does not cause an increase in car insurance.
“We were doing this by having an officer—an officer, not the one who wrote the ticket—come out to the court on several different tickets and see if they’d reduce it down to impeding traffic,” he said. “But of course, you’re still paying for one officer to come out, and you’re still paying for court time.”
He said the idea to allow an electronic pre-hearing conference makes sense.
“It’s a win-win for everybody because number one, with the way budgets are these days, the police do not have to show up, which means they can do it from their office if they have to do anything,” he said. “It eliminates the court time which means we don’t have to put that on our docket. And it also frees up time for the magistrate, of course. It also has a convenient factor for the defendant.”
The ease of paying the fee online is another advantage for both the defendant and court, he said.
Tickets for traffic crashes will not be reduced because they affect other parties.
The three charges that are eligible—and in the vast majority of cases are granted a reduction to “impeding traffic”—are speeding, disobeying a traffic control device, and failure to stop at a stop sign. The project is funded by the University of Michigan’s Third Century Initiative grant program. The grant is being used primarily to develop the software and implement pilots, with the hope of bringing the service to courts throughout Michigan and beyond. Over the two-year grant period, the use of the scalable software will transition away from a pilot implementation and be supported by courts and stakeholders.
“Courts affect many thousands of people every day,” said Prescott. “Most people have spent at least some time dealing with a traffic ticket through what seems to be an antiquated process. Often, people can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be doing and they are unable to hire a lawyer to help them.”
The software is specifically designed for each court so that the magistrates, clerks, and judges have at their disposal the information they need to grant or deny each request.
“In the case of traffic tickets, a lot of this has to do with your record,” said Prescott. “Not surprisingly, when the software reveals a poor driving history, judges are much less likely to offer a reduction.”
Prescott, who is also the co-director of the Empirical Legal Studies Center and the Law and Economics Program at Michigan Law, noted that while appearing before a judge with expertise and discretion is necessary in serious cases, most of what clogs the courts now are minor infractions that can be better handled online.
He recalls a time he waited in court four hours to have his ticket reduced from “evading a traffic device” to “impeding traffic” after a 30 second negotiation with the prosecutor. Many people can’t take that time off from work to wait in court, and sometimes decision-makers can be influenced by irrelevant considerations, like a person’s appearance. An on-line request levels the playing field, he said.
The program is expanding in Bay County this month to include the online mediation of outstanding warrants. Prescott believes the program has great potential to reduce the thousands of outstanding warrants for individuals who inadvertently missed a court date for a minor infraction or didn’t have the money to pay a fine. In many cases, these individuals simply don’t know how to resolve their warrant, but are too intimidated to walk into a court, even if they could take a day off work, for fear of being arrested.
Later this fall, the Online Court Project will expand into Ypsilanti, Northfield Township, and Saline.
Truesdell sees only positive results.
 “It’s worked wonderfully,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”
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