Improving Access to Justice in State Courts with Platform Technology
Access to justice often equates to access to state courts, and for millions of Americans, using state courts to resolve their disputes—often with the government—is a real challenge. Reforms are regularly proposed in the hopes of improving the situation (e.g., better legal aid), but until recently a significant part of the problem has been structural. Using state courts today for all but the simplest of legal transactions entails at the very least traveling to a courthouse and meeting with a decisionmaker in person and in a one-on-one setting. Even minimally effective access, therefore, requires time, transportation, and very often the financial wherewithal to miss work or to pay for child care. In this Article, I investigate the effects of altering this structural baseline by studying the consequences of introducing online platform technology to improve citizen access to justice. In courts that adopt the technology, citizens are able to communicate with law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges to seek relief or negotiate a resolution through an online portal at any time of day. Examining many months of data from half a dozen adopting state courts, I present evidence that introducing this technology dramatically reduces the amount of time it takes for citizens to resolve their disputes and satisfy any fines or fees they owe. Default rates also plummet, and court personnel, including judges, appear to engage constructively with citizens when using the platform. From the perspective of state courts, disputes end more quickly, the percentage of payments received increases, and it takes less time for courts to receive those payments. Even citizens who do not use the platform may benefit from the technology’s introduction, presumably because they find they face less congestion when they physically go to a courthouse.
Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School