COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted across the United States. As people emerge from their cocoons and re-explore how to interact with people face-to-unmasked-face, there’s value in evaluating the long-term effects on consumer behavior and how U.S. court systems can benefit.
A new survey from Salesforce shows that increased experimentation with online shopping during the pandemic has permanently changed consumer behavior. People are shopping more—and spending more—with e-commerce retailers. More than two-thirds of people in the U.S. (69%) have now purchased something online, including clothing, furniture, and groceries. Significantly, online shopping converts include consumers 65 and older, who are now the fastest-growing category of online shoppers.
Other online usage has increased too, from mobile banking to media consumption. Additionally, 81% of professionals want to continue working from home all or most of the time, according to a survey from Harvard Business School Online. These statistics show that, in general, Americans have gotten comfortable handling personal and professional needs virtually. Many experts believe that in-person shopping and in-office work will likely never return to pre-COVID levels.
Shoppers and workers are, of course, also citizens, and the fact that these citizens are now more willing to handle things online means they’re also more willing to potentially resolve court matters online. The pandemic has fast-tracked the shift to an online mindset, so courts can expect the public to react even more positively to online dispute resolution (ODR) platforms, where available.
The Rise of Online Dispute Resolution
Online dispute resolution is an exclusively digital space where attorneys, judges, court clerks, defendants, and related parties can discuss and resolve a legal matter. The technology wasn’t originally made for the courtroom, but for e-commerce sites like eBay. Buyers and shoppers have been using ODR to iron out issues for years, and these platforms’ success has led ODR to be used in more than 60 million e-commerce disputes annually. That’s more cases than the entire U.S. civil court system!
While some ODRs use webcams and allow everyone involved to speak directly with each other in real-time, non-video ODRs are preferred in many cases because they can better accommodate people’s different schedules and needs. (And it means no one will try to attend a traffic court via webcam while performing a medical procedure, as happened in California recently, making global headlines.) A non-video online dispute resolution enables participants to log in 24/7/365 to review the case, provide new evidence, upload documents, dispute points, and reply to other parties. When there is a change in the status of the case, such as if someone adds new information, an alert is automatically sent out to the relevant parties. Plus, members of the court have dashboards that give insight into every case and highlight which ones need attention. Attorneys, law enforcement officers, and members of the court can review materials and make recommendations within the platform. The defendant can then respond or approve those recommendations. Once everything is accepted by all parties, they sign an agreement and resolve the case. If needed, the defendant can pay a fine through the same application.
The whole process happens quickly, in that each step doesn’t take much time, but it can be spread out as needed to work within everyone’s schedules. That’s why ODR is being adopted in more and more U.S. court systems for different kinds of cases, such as for traffic offenses. It has quickly become a more optimal method than in-person hearings for both members of the court and the general public.
Benefits for Courts
Online dispute resolution allows courts to adapt to the new consumer mindset and better service the public through a safe, customized online portal. It includes numerous other benefits as well, including:
- Increasing efficiencies and reducing delays: Cases typically move quicker online than in-person. Instead of a case taking hours or days, it can be resolved in minutes. Plus, there is no downtime waiting for someone to do their part. That means that more cases are resolved in less time.
- Boosting revenue: Faster processing means local governments receive more revenue from fees and fines. That is critical as they recover from a year when 82% saw a loss in income due to the lack of payments.
- Making justice more easily accessible: Defendants won’t lose income from having to take time off work to attend an in-person hearing. They won’t have to pay for childcare or, possibly, an attorney. Plus, the online court is open at any hour of the day for anyone to take part.
- Improving process satisfaction rates: Defendants, attorneys, officers, and judges appreciate the convenience of not needing to appear in person for minor or routine matters. Additionally, ODR provides reporting features and analytics that allow courts to detect patterns, anticipate needs, and continue to augment processes.
- Lowering financial risk: Some platforms don’t charge any fees to courts. Instead, they earn their revenue via credit card fees when offenders pay their fines. Typically, these no-cost platforms also have shorter contract periods too. That means there is essentially no risk to the court to implement the solution.
- Ensuring safety: ODR provides protection for all hearing participants while COVID remains a concern (since you can’t catch the virus during an online hearing). It also enables police officers to remain on patrol instead of losing time in court. All matters and interactions are kept private and secure within the system.
The pandemic took the previously existing trends of living and working online and accelerated them. Consumers are now accustomed to on-demand shopping and streamed entertainment, and that means they’re more receptive to court solutions that are on-demand, rather than appointment-based. Online dispute resolution empowers courts to not only meet current needs but ensure they are poised to meet future needs as well. With greater efficiency and greater access to justice, ODR is here to stay.
Jarrett Gorlin has is currently a major in the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office. He is also a legal tech entrepreneur who co-founded Judicial Innovations, an Atlanta-based technology company that provides free cloud-based platforms for online traffic court resolution, government payments, and probation management. Learn more at www.judicialinnovations.com.