National Pulse

Michigan program allows people to resolve legal issues online


Home Court Advantage

Photo illustration by Monica Burciaga

If you’ve ever gotten a traffic ticket, you know it’s a hassle if you decide to fight it. Getting to court, waiting for your case to be called and presenting your side can take hours. You may even need to miss a day of work.

But if you live in some parts of Michigan, you might be able to go to court without actually going. A growing number of courts have adopted a software program called Matterhorn, which enables individuals to resolve a handful of legal issues online, at any time, even the middle of the night. Ohio has started using the technology, and other states are looking into it as well.

That means people can challenge tickets in the comfort of their living rooms, cars or anywhere they have access to the internet. Officials from Court Innovations Inc., which markets, implements and maintains Matterhorn, say the company is dedicated to access to justice and making that access easier.

“Matterhorn allows people to get to court without actually having to go to court. For some people, it may be their only way to have their voices heard,” says MJ Cartwright, chief executive of Court Innovations. “That’s important to us.”

CHOOSING WHAT’S POSSIBLE

So far, 17 Michigan state courts have set up online dispute resolution services through Matterhorn. The program can facilitate resolution of an increasingly “wide breadth” of civil and criminal infractions, notes Cartwright. Court Innovations is in final negotiations to launch the service for the first time in a family court.

Courts using Matterhorn determine what types of legal issues will be resolvable online and what types will require an in-court appearance in their jurisdictions. Some Michigan courts have opted for online traffic ticket resolution only, while others have ventured into misdemeanors and warrant resolution.

For example, Michigan’s 54-A District Court, which includes the city of Lansing, uses Matterhorn for traffic tickets and cases involving the failure to pay outstanding warrants. Court administrator Anethia Brewer says the court is looking into increasing its online program to include parking tickets and driving with a suspended license.

In October, the Matterhorn platform expanded outside of Michigan for the first time. Franklin County, Ohio, began using the platform for small claims matters. Cartwright says she expects more courts to follow suit, using the platform for a variety of dispute resolution needs.

“We are talking to quite a few different jurisdictions in Ohio and, in fact, throughout the country,” Cartwright says. “There are collections and payment systems out there, but there really isn’t another system that allows you to negotiate outstanding penalties, resolve outstanding cases, comply with judgments and all the other things we can do.”

Jason Tashea, founder of Justice Codes—a Baltimore-based company that helps Court Innovations implement Matterhorn—says the software helps courts handle high-volume cases on tight budgets. The platform does not require a monthly subscription, he says, which should appeal to cash-strapped courts. Instead, courts pay a fee to Court Innovations every time the platform is used, or “pay-per-use.”

“Courts are known for being recalcitrant to change, and slow-moving when it comes to technology, but the interest in this project is higher than others because it is so simply designed,” says Tashea (who freelances for the ABA Journal).

Matterhorn was born in academia. Five years ago, University of Michigan law professor J.J. Prescott and his then-student Ben Gubernick were brainstorming an online resolution program to help with the backlog of outstanding warrants in the court system. Around that time, Prescott waited four hours and missed a day of work to appear in court for a traffic ticket.

At that point, the men realized that including traffic tickets and other minor legal offenses in their online resolution concept made sense. They did their research: While some courts offered ways to pay tickets online, most did not allow for individuals to “have a voice” in the process, Prescott says.

Neither Prescott nor Gubernick knew how to write computer programs. With help from a University of Michigan grant, they began the U-M Online Court Project. They hired programmers to develop a prototype for Matterhorn, which they pitched to the Michigan State Court Administrative Office. Prescott and Gubernick then launched Court Innovations to deliver the technology. Researchers at the University of Michigan are still using grant money, Prescott says, to improve and further develop online court access.

MAKING THE CASE

The Matterhorn platform allows individuals to argue their cases online through written submissions, which can then be reviewed by prosecutors or judges, depending upon the procedures in a particular jurisdiction. The system allows for and encourages judicial and prosecutorial discretion, Prescott says.

In some jurisdictions, individuals can use the system to explain why they can’t pay a particular penalty and then set up a payment plan or other means of resolving their outstanding balances.

“The platform allows for people to come online, find in the court’s database their outstanding issue and then communicate in a structured way about the issue,” Prescott says. “All we’ve done is built an online space for these types of communications.”

Prescott also says the program is intended to help courts resolve any backlog of unpaid tickets and fines by encouraging individuals to interact with the courts and face their outstanding bills and legal matters. Some individuals who access the system online, he says, might otherwise have ignored or tried to avoid resolving their traffic tickets, outstanding warrants or fees, or other legal issues.

“If you have an outstanding warrant, for example, because you missed a court appearance or owe money, you might be intimidated to walk into court and explain what happened. Or maybe you can’t take a day off work or your court is far away,” Prescott says. “But it’s not always necessary for people to come in person.”

According to a survey conducted by Court Innovations, more than 80 percent of those who used the system said they were likely to recommend it to a friend or family member. About 40 percent of those who took the survey said they would not have been able to appear in court without the online option.

One user noted: “I haven’t been to court before. I wouldn’t have known what to do, where to go, what to say, so it really took a lot of stress from me to do this online.”

Michigan courts began using Matterhorn in 2014, as part of a pilot program approved by the Michigan Supreme Court. According to John Nevin, communications director for the court, the online dispute resolution platform fit right into the supreme court’s “strategic objectives” of efficiency, accessibility and innovation.

Nevin says the program has increased the efficiency of Michigan courts. For example, a study of three courts and 17,000 cases revealed a 74 percent reduction in average days to case resolution with online dispute resolution. A court in Washtenaw County using Matterhorn reduced case turnover from one or two months to just over seven days, according to Nevin.

“The online program is one example of the many ways we are modernizing our court system to make it more efficient and customer-friendly,” Nevin says. “We need to let people into the courthouse through their smartphones, not just through the door of the building. It’s the way business is done nowadays.”

Nevin sees online court programs as the wave of the future and a welcome change in the way courts do business. “It’s enough of a pain to get a ticket,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a pain to resolve it.”


This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Home Court Advantage: Michigan program allows people to contest traffic tickets and handle other minor legal matters online instead of in court."



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