Online dispute resolution keeps small claims out of court

Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Usually, if you have problems with the landlord or a neighbor that you just can’t solve, you might end up in small claims court or at a dispute resolution center. Now, as courts move more proceedings online to help maintain social distance, you could resolve your dispute from your laptop or even your phone.

It’s happening with the expansion of the state’s MI-Resolve online tool.

“I’ve said every day of this, we’re going to be doing business completely differently after COVID-19 in our courts and I see online dispute resolution as a big part of what we offer the public,” Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack said.

HOW DISPUTE RESOLUTION WORKS

For 25 years, the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan in Grand Rapids has handled disputes out of seven counties. It is designed to help citizens and to relieve some of courts’ load.

“If people are able to resolve the differences through mediation, then they’re not taking up the courts’ time with a motion hearing, they’re not takin up the courts’ time with an evidentiary hearing,” Christine Gilman, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, explained. “You leave with a contract, so it’s not the same as leaving with a court judgement but courts are generally very interested in upholding mediation agreements.”

The West Michigan center helps with about 800 resolutions a year. It relies on the help of about 50 volunteers, who get about 60 hours of training including an internship.

About 40% of mediators are attorneys, but can come from all walks of life as long as they are good listeners and patient.

Many disputes are referred from the court, though people often start the process themselves beforehand.

“Not only can they be a way to save time and money for litigants — and, frankly, time for courts — they also can be more satisfying ways to resolve problems for lots of people,” McCormack said.

Unlike court, where usually one side prevails over the other, dispute resolution comes to an accord that both sides agree to and sign a contract.

“The satisfaction level for parties that resolve their disputes with the help of volunteers is off the charts. It’s much higher than people who resolve their disputes in the courts, frankly,” McCormack said.

Studies show that more than 90% of those agreements are honored, compared with less than 60% compliance with court-ordered resolutions in Kent County.

MI-RESOLVE MOVES PROCESS ONLINE

The West Michigan center moved its work to Zoom to ease logistics during the coronavirus pandemic, then switched to the state’s new MI-Resolve system a couple of weeks ago.

This week, MI-Resolve became available in Berrien, Branch, Cass, St. Joseph, Van Buren and Kalamazoo counties. Parties can deal with small claims, landlord/tenant conflicts or neighbor disputes.

Using the free, password-protected site, parties can negotiate directly or ask a mediator for help. The process is primarily worked out through text., and the mediator can talk confidentially with each party to move things along.

The site was designed to be easy to use on a smartphone, tablet or laptop — meaning people can use it wherever they are.

“Because it’s all done on this platform, it can all be taken care of in a day or two days,” said Michelle Hilliker, who manages MI-Resolve for the Lansing-based State Court Administrator’s Office.

If the dispute is resolved, the system produces the necessary court forms for filing in county courts.

The online program started before the pandemic as a way to help people who, for whatever reason — limited access to child care, the inability to travel or no time off of work — might have a hard time getting to dispute resolution services.

People in 44 of Michigan’s 83 counties can currently use MI-Resolve. Officials hope it will be available to everyone in the state by the end of June.

The chief justice says while the program has been expanded faster because of the pandemic, it is one of the changes to the justice system that is here to stay.

“We are forced to learn new ways of doing business and see which of them actually makes sense to keep and it turns out many of them do,” McCormack said.

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