Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered courthouses nationwide and moved a range of court proceedings online, many jurisdictions were using online dispute resolution (ODR) to enable parties to resolve civil cases without setting foot in a courtroom. Going forward, efforts at standardization will be key to the success of these technologies, helping to ensure that courts and litigants have clear processes to follow—and that those processes support an efficient, equitable experience for all users. To that end, the Texas Judicial Council in September adopted a framework for implementing ODR tools and required compliance by county and local courts.
The framework, developed with technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts, gives the state’s 254 counties a roadmap to follow as they explore virtual mediation, online case filing, and other court processes that fall under the ODR umbrella. When done well, ODR can improve customer service, boost efficiency, and reduce costs. The council’s work will help make ODR uniformly fair and accessible across Texas—an objective that aligns with efforts by national court and judicial organizations to establish universal safeguards for court technologies in a post-pandemic world.
“The judicial council’s framework gives courts unambiguous guidance with regard to ODR technologies,” said David Slayton, director of administration for the Texas courts and executive director of the council, which is the policymaking body for the state judiciary. “Providing counties with basic principles supports the successful use of these tools, which can be used by Texans seeking to resolve all manner of civil matters.”
The best practices in the framework define the types of cases for which ODR will be used. They outline how cases will proceed to court if a dispute cannot be handled online and ensure a streamlined review and settlement process, whether online or in the courthouse. The document also includes direction on protections for court users, such as how ODR fees should be regulated, that data confidentiality should be preserved, and that oversight is needed to monitor system use and effectiveness.
“Appropriately implementing ODR allows users to more easily navigate court processes, helps courts handle disputes quickly and effectively, and reduces costs for all involved,” said Judge Chuck Ruckel of Justice of the Peace Precinct 3 in Collin County, Texas. His county was one of the first in the state to implement ODR. “The framework will prevent a patchwork of different systems and make sure users experience similar benefits.”
The adopted practices also include strategies, such as mobile compatibility and translation services, that courts can embrace to improve access for persons with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. Such steps should reduce barriers to the courts for some users who have traditionally struggled to avail themselves of the legal system.
“The principles set forth by the council prioritize accessibility,” said Chief Justice Sherry Radack of the Texas First District Court of Appeals, who is a board member of the judicial council. “As Texas courts innovate and embrace new ways of doing business, it is imperative that modern tools be used in a way that reduces obstacles to access, rather than unintentionally creating new roadblocks.”
As members of the public continue to call for online tools that help them navigate civil disputes—with or without the help of a lawyer—more states will look to ODR and other virtual solutions. By adopting mandatory principles for its courts, Texas is working to make the implementation of ODR a success and creating a model that other states can replicate as they explore similar technologies.
Erika Rickard is a director and Qudsiya Naqui is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization project.