Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell calls it “pajama justice.”
A software program his court and one in Travis County will begin using in July gives people a chance to quickly resolve their civil lawsuits through mediation without leaving their homes.
“People can sit at home in their pajamas and get emails from the opposite side and see if they can reach a resolution,” Gravell said.
His Precinct 3 court — which covers Georgetown, Florence, Jarrell and Weir — is the second court in Texas to sign up for the program and will start using it July 15.
Travis County’s Precinct 2 justice of the peace was the first in Texas to sign up with the system, called “Modria Online Dispute Resolution Solution,” and plans to start using it July 18.
Travis County’s Precinct 2, which spans from the edge of Williamson County to the edge of Burnet County, is the largest justice court in the county by caseload and geography, Justice of the Peace Randall Slagle said. At the end of January, the justice court had about 22,000 active cases pending.
“I believe that this process is going to help a lot of cases get resolved without needing to go to court,” Slagle said, adding that it will save people time and money, especially those who have to come from as far as Lakeway and Lago Vista to the Burnet Road courthouse in North Austin.
The online dispute resolution is offered by a Plano-based company called Tyler Technologies. The program is free for counties using it, but people involved in small claims lawsuits each pay a $15 fee to try to mediate them online, said Jamie Gillespie, a general manager for the program.
The Modria system was created as a way to process millions of disputes at eBay and PayPal, with 90 percent resolved by automation alone, Gilliespie said. She said Tyler purchased the system in June 2017 and “configured it to match justice system processes.”
Company officials said that Clark County in Nevada began using the system in April and that Georgia’s Fulton County recently signed a contract for small claims and landlord-tenant cases.
“If it is properly promoted, we could see well over a 50 percent (success rate) on small claims cases,” Gillespie said. But she added that there is no information currently available on the success rate.
Williamson County has a five-year contract for the program, and Travis County has a one-year contract, Gillespie said.
The use of the program will be optional, and it will be available only to people with civil suits that involve money, Slagle and Gravell said. The parties will still receive a court date, regardless of whether they choose to try the program, they said.
Currently, in Williamson County, if a person files a civil lawsuit in Precinct 3, the wait is at least 45 days to get a court hearing, Gravell said. The court handles small claims civil lawsuits with damages up to $10,000.
Gravell said once the parties involved show up at the hearing, he might give them another 45 days to reach a settlement by going to a mediation center. If they can’t settle, then they might have to wait three to six months for a trial, Gravell said.
If someone chooses to use the online dispute resolution system, the mediation process begins immediately after they file a small claims suit and pay court filing fees of about $50. Travis County adds a $75 service fee..
Tyler Technologies emails the plaintiff and the person being sued and tells them how to log on to the system, Gillespie said. The system then asks the users a set of questions “to try to take the emotion out of this,” she said.
For example, plaintiffs are asked what the issue is and then given a choice of boxes to check, such as “I have an issue with damage caused to property.”
The system also asks what solution a user is looking for and lists a range of responses, such as “provide a full refund.” Users also may ask for an apology or email back and forth about what financial amount they would be willing to settle for, Gillespie said.
“A lot of people are OK with getting less money than they want out of the case as long as the other person apologizes,” Gillespie said.
If no settlement is reached, users in both counties will be assigned certified mediators who will attempt to settle the dispute online for no extra fee, both judges said.
“There’s no drawback to doing it,” Slagle said. “If this does not work out at all, the parties will come to our court just like they would have before.”
Gravell, who saw 1,491 cases filed in his court last year, said he hopes the online dispute resolution can help lessen the tension and anger that often occur in small claims lawsuits. He recalled that once “I had two landowners, and one had Bermuda grass and the other had St. Augustine grass. The one with Bermuda grass was cutting his lawn and letting the clippings go into the neighbor’s yard, and they sued each other.”
Slagle agreed that the new system might do more than offer legal convenience — it might save relationships, too.
“If you have a neighbor you’re in a dispute with, you may stay on good terms with your neighbor” if the dispute can be settled between the two of you, Slagle said. “If a judge orders someone to pay money, you may never speak to that person again.”
He said his office will monitor the program for at least a few months to decide whether to expand it.
“If this works out, which we think it will, we’ll expand it to more cases, more case types, and I’ve talked to other JPs, and they’re all very excited about this,” Slagle said.