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They call it the “pajama court.”

Online Dispute Resolution, casually referred to as ODR, has been resolving eBay-gone-wrong scenarios for quite some time.

The original concept was simple: I buy a blue, ceramic owl from Joe Smith on eBay and, to my surprise, receive a polka-dotted elephant in the mail. Disappointed, yes, but I find myself kind of liking this polka-dotted elephant – maybe I don’t need a blue owl after all. I’d like to be compensated for not receiving what I originally ordered, but am hoping Joe and I can work out a deal so his time and talents on this elephant don’t go to waste. We leverage eBay’s online dispute resolution platform and come to a good-faith agreement on this transaction: Joe refunds half of my money, and I agree to keep good ol’ polka dots instead of the originally-requested blue owl.

It wasn’t long before the justice community realized that they, too, could leverage a similar platform to facilitate faster turnaround on smaller-scale cases like traffic violations and small claims issues. Now highly regarded by both court personnel and the public, ODR has even been mandated in Utah for small claims cases less than $11K. A hot topic among Judges and court personnel, especially with the pandemic-induced future of increasingly remote court operations, you may even hear ODR affectionately referred to as “the pajama court” since, essentially, it allows case participants to work through their conflicts from the comforts of home – even in their pajamas.

From Blue Owls to Blue Lights: ODR Successful in Criminal Cases

At first look, the ODR concept fits the mold of smaller-scale cases. Not only is it accessible and convenient for the affiliated parties, but it reserves foot traffic and most of the Judge’s focus for critical, higher-priority issues.

These elements, however, are two-fold and also serve some aspects of criminal proceedings. Upon evaluation from a screening unit, many minor misdemeanors, such as trespassing, theft, arson threats and others, are, in fact, plausible for mediation.   

This, of course, raises the question: yes, misdemeanor cases can be solved online – but should they be?

While not the end-all-be-all determining force, we see that the benefit scale tips in ODR’s favor – and here’s why:

  • An online environment is not only a matter of convenience. As you may have experienced in remote working conditions, virtual communications mitigate uncertainties and hostility. With everything facilitated online, ODR’s neutral place of business maintains the process, rather than emotion, as the focus. This includes triggering events, such as face-to-face confrontation with an offender.
  • ODR’s asynchronous communication style is also revered for allowing parties the time needed to clearly think through their choices, and separate emotion from facts or goals, before responding. Although conducted on the mismatched availability of others, ODR actually brings closure to victims much faster than drawn-out, in-person and potentially adversarial judicial proceedings.
  • For the prosecutor, these benefits are transformative to their often-overwhelmed work-load balance. No longer worried about the problems of insufficient evidence or information, the stress of unpredictable witnesses or disappointing, court-appointed outcomes for victims, the prosecutor better prioritizes his/her time and cases. Only after mediation is complete will the prosecutor meet with the mediator to discuss the written agreement and recommendations. From there, the prosecutor can decide whether to immediately file a disposition or quickly close the case on the in-person trial date.

Scaled-to-You

With the tried-and-tested tools available and an increasing need for accessible, digital court operations, we’ve been encouraged by steady inquiries about the potential of ODR in a variety of use cases. From its roots in small claims and expanded capacity for criminal cases to divorce, landlord-tenant resolutions and beyond, ODR has a purpose in every court.

We’ve seen the best results when courts implement ODR over just one jurisdiction for a very defined case type (such as Utah), find their footing with its platform and abilities, and then expand. As an incredibly scalable solution, you’re not pigeon-holed into a specific solution forever – it evolves, contracts and/or grows with your court’s needs. 

After all, you can’t cook a polka-dotted elephant all at once.