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Prescott: In Michigan, access to justice a click away

J.J. Prescott

Implementing cutting-edge, Internet-based technologies in our courts has the potential to dramatically enhance access to justice for all citizens, especially those long left out in the cold.

Courts are taxpayer-funded institutions, dedicated to helping members of society resolve outstanding disputes in a fair and efficient manner. Many of the people who work in and with courts are public servants, devoted to improving people's lives. Yet, as the daily news and common experience make plain, our courts remain difficult, expensive and time-consuming to use.

Many areas of our lives have been revolutionized by the Internet. Emailing, ordering a prescription, renewing a driver's license, shopping for a new home, buying a plane ticket, or disputing a credit card charge can all be done online, from home or mobile phones at all hours of the day and night.

But if you want to discuss a ticket with the authorities, or if you can't afford to pay a fine all at once, it is still virtually always the case that you must appear in court physically — during business hours. Even a matter that everyone agrees will take only a minute or two to resolve often requires waiting for many hours to talk to the right person. Unfortunately, words like "cattle call" and "McJustice" apply to much of the work our local courts do these days.

What's worse is that the people who suffer most as a result of this outmoded approach are those who can least afford it, and that's inherently unfair. Even for trivial issues, going to court requires taking time off of work. For hourly workers, this is expensive, perhaps prohibitively so. For many others, taking time off to address an issue isn't even possible, not without risking their jobs.

And if the issue is confusing, or if money is due, many understandably fear what might happen to them if they do find a way to get to court. An unresolved traffic ticket, a civil fine, or even a misdemeanor offense can quickly escalate in severity. An unresolved ticket can mean losing a driver's license or eventually even arrest.

Fortunately, technology we have developed at the University of Michigan is already improving court access in our state, freeing citizens to resolve outstanding issues with a court without going to the court. We have partnered with a handful of courts to allow online court access: Citizens are able to resolve certain tickets and violations, outstanding fines, and missed court dates online, on their own time, working directly with judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement to reach mutually satisfying resolutions.

There's a certain myopia at play for those quick to say that courts can't, won't, or shouldn't change. A common misconception is that we can't fairly and accurately resolve minor offenses online or that online access is simply a rubber stamp that circumvents a judge's discretion. In fact, much of what happens in court can happen just as well online (and sometimes in an even better, fairer way) and is already happening online in some of our most innovative Michigan courts.

Judges want fairness and efficiency in court. People want the freedom that comes with knowing they can use the courts to solve — rather than deepen — their problems. Police and prosecutors want justice. Making minor offenses easy to resolve online is the way to address all of these needs and ultimately ensure an accessible, just court system.

Wouldn't it be great if Michigan led the way for online access to justice throughout the nation?

J.J. Prescott is a University of Michigan law professor and co-founder of Court Innovations Inc.