Florida Supreme Court approves pilot program for online small claims court
Acting on the Florida Bar’s recommendation, the Florida Supreme Court has authorized courts to pilot online courts, so small claim litigants never have to enter a courthouse.
Chief Justice Carlos G. Muñiz’s July 18 administrative order will allow judicial circuits to explore the concept of online court for small claims, either through an online dispute resolution platform or other software “to facilitate entirely or largely online resolution” of cases.
Former Florida Bar President Michael G. Tanner ordered the creation of the Florida Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force, which made the recommendation. A business litigation attorney with the Florida law firm Gunster, he notes the burdens that litigants face in small claims and the difficulty of getting representation.
“Often, that process is very frustrating for pro se litigants,” Tanner told the ABA Journal. “Anytime citizens feel like the justice system is not open and transparent, that detracts from the public’s trust in the justice system. To the extent we can make it transparent and easy to use and available and inexpensive and quick, all of those things will promote the public’s perception and trust.”
In a May 2022 report, the task force recommended an online court for claims of $1,000 or less that would allow parties to resolve their cases without having to physically appear in court. But the report highlighted potential downsides of fully online courts, including perceptions that the task force was “relegating ‘small disputes,’” and that litigants might be giving up their day in court.
“The task force recognizes that some litigants may prefer traditional courtrooms and accordingly, participation in the online court should be optional,” according to the report.
It questioned whether lack of access to technology could hinder some litigants. According to the report, “traditional court” should still be an option, and the public should be able to access online court through their cellphones. It also said community programs offering digital access could play a role but recognized that the measures would not entirely solve the problems.
The Tallahassee, Florida’s court five-page order said after submitting a “detailed project plan,” judicial circuits in the state must update the Florida Supreme Court through the state courts administrator “no later than six months after launching a pilot project” and include information “on the progress of implementation and clear metrics by which the circuit can capture the information needed to evaluate usage and assess performance of the online court concept.”
“I would hope that Florida would become a leader in this,” Tanner says. “It’s not something we are advocating for every case. We recognize that there are some cases an online platform is not suitable for. But [for] the small contract claims, debt claims, things like that, it’s an important first step.”
According to the report, the task force reviewed online platforms in other countries and U.S. states, including Utah’s online court and New York’s online mediation programs, and demoed technology developed by the University of Michigan Law School called Matterhorn, in addition to Tyler Technologies’ platform Modria. At that time, both online dispute resolution software companies were providing services to the state’s courts.
According to the Matterhorn website, the technology is used in more than 150 courts and more than 20 states to resolve civil and family cases, including small claims, traffic cases and warrants and pleas. The report noted that Matterhorn representatives were “optimistic” that they could create a statewide online court and said the task force preferred the vendor “due to its integration with the [state’s existing] e-filing portal system and ease in operation and use for the consumer.”