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February 29, 2024

Party Distrust and Perceptions of Court Communications

Rachel Feinstein and Jennifer Shack

Much has been written recently about the decline of Americans’ trust in institutions. New research conducted by Resolution Systems Institute indicates that this lack of trust may extend to how individuals perceive court documents and online dispute resolution (ODR) websites. For the ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project, Resolution Systems Institute conducted a series of six focus groups in three states to learn about the barriers self-represented litigants experience navigating ODR paperwork and the registration website. The project aims to make court communications regarding text-based ODR more accessible to diverse self-represented populations. Significantly, five of the six focus groups had reservations about the authenticity of both the documents and websites.

Background

Focus groups were conducted with 41 total participants in three states: in a rural town in New Hampshire, a mid-size suburb of Houston, Texas, and a large urban city in Maryland. Of the 36 participants whose demographic information was collected, 15 identified as Black or African American, 14 as Latino/Latina, and seven as white. All earned less than $50,000/year, and 22 had earned a high school diploma or less.

Along with other materials, participants were asked to review hard copies of a Notice of ODR to Defendants and a Statement of Claim that they would receive in the mail if they were involved in a small claims lawsuit and were required to participate in ODR. In addition, feedback was requested on two state’s court ODR information and ODR provider sites.

Role of Trust

The issue of trust was a common thread throughout all focus groups. Participant discussions often related to trust, whether it was of the court, corporations, or other individuals. The fear of being scammed was particularly prevalent, whether it was through the mail, via email or on a website. The participants’ mistrust affected how they responded to the court materials we presented them. A common reaction to the Statement of Claim, Notice of ODR and the websites was to assess their legitimacy.

Legitimacy of Court Documents

Many participants said they would be skeptical if they received an initial Statement of Claim in the mail and the plaintiff was unfamiliar to them. This is significant because consumer lenders often sell their debt to a third party, which then files suit to reclaim the money owed. When this happens, defendants tend not to recognize the plaintiff, which may raise concerns about being scammed. Many participants said they would question whether the Statement of Claim was a joke, really meant for them, or a scam, “because of a lot of scamming” happens these days. One person said they would “think it was mostly a scam and throw away the paperwork.”

Some participants in each state said they would verify the legitimacy of the Statement of Claim and the Notice of ODR by calling the court. A New Hampshire focus group participant said, “I would probably be making phone calls to make sure they're real, but that's just with any paperwork that I'm not expecting to get.” A participant in Texas also pointed out the importance of courts providing contact information on the paperwork. He explained, “That's what I would probably do right away will be see if there's a phone number. I mean, to me, if it’s a scam or not, I mean, you at least give it a try to call whatever number that is provided.”

A contact number in the initial paperwork was also seen as important when assessing the legitimacy of the website. A few participants said they would call the court to verify the website was legitimate. For example, one participant explained, “The paperwork you're receiving, it would have the court name on it, the case number, et cetera, correct? Wouldn't you call the court and just be assured like, ‘Hey, is this your website? Are you affiliated with this?’ You know what I mean, that type of stuff.” While in another New Hampshire group, a person said, “I want to open this up and call and go, "Is this your real site?” Thus, one way to allay parties’ fears and promote party engagement is to provide a very visible court contact number in the initial paperwork.

Legitimacy of Website

Three of the focus groups were asked to provide feedback on one court’s mediation and ODR webpage and on its ODR provider’s platform homepage (“Court A”). The other three focus groups were asked to provide feedback on the platform homepage for another court’s ODR provider (“Court B”). Their reactions to the two sites were very different. Two of the three focus groups that assessed the Court A site did not bring up the site’s legitimacy; they focused on other aspects of the site. Members of the third focus group responded that it looked legitimate, although a couple were concerned that the domain extension was not .gov.

On the other hand, participants’ initial reactions in all three of the focus groups who reviewed the Court B site indicated a concern that the site was not legitimate, as succinctly stated by a Maryland participant: “Oh, Lord. Scam.” A New Hampshire participant’s first reaction was, “It kind of looks like a scam site.”

Reasons the Website Did Not Look Legitimate

Participants were asked to elaborate on the reasons the website looked inauthentic to them. Nine participants said the Court B website needed something to make it look more official. Several participants noted the lack of an official state seal or court name at the top of the website. For example, one person said, “I just would prefer a more official state seal. Something that’s an actual representation of the court.”

Another aspect of the Court B ODR website that raised legitimacy questions for focus group participants was the incorporation of social media links. The links were offered as an additional method for signing into the website. While some people liked the ease of being able to sign in with social media accounts instead of making a new account, several people noted that the social media icons on the webpage made them more suspicious.

Entwined with the question of legitimacy was some participants’ concern about the Court B ODR site’s security. As one Maryland participant stated, “It looks like the one you get into and go into a virus.” Another said, “It doesn’t have no security. No secure things saying that it’s a secured site.” New Hampshire participants were concerned about whether their information might be shared: “[I]f you log in with Facebook, the court may have access to your Facebook and stuff.” “When you sign in with your Facebook, you're giving all your information on Facebook. You’re giving all your information from LinkedIn. I don't want nobody to have that information but me.”

The domain extension (.com) provoked skepticism about both sites. Five participants explained that a state court should have a .gov website and said the lack of this domain name raises questions about whether the website is legitimate. A participant in Maryland explained, “I ain’t trusting a dot-com for my court.” A Texas participant had a similar sentiment, saying, “I don't think it would say .com. I think it would say .gov. What kind of courthouse — there's no such thing as a private courthouse.”

Focus Group Suggestions to Improve Perception of Legitimacy

When asked how the websites could better show they are legitimate, many shared that the extension should be .gov, and the website should have an official seal and/or court name. Participants wanted to see consistency in the seal and court name across court documents and sites.

Providing information at the bottom of the webpage is also important for establishing legitimacy. For example, with Court A’s webpage, which most people trusted and viewed as legitimate, one participant who was asked to explain why the site seemed trustworthy explained, “With everything down here at the bottom, it just seems like it’s an actual website.” He was referring to the section at the bottom of the webpage where the court lists its phone number, address and business hours. Another participant reiterated the importance of the information at the bottom of a webpage, “First of all, where you always check to see if the website’s real or not, you scroll down to the bottom.”

While there was variation in how participants want to receive an initial notice and updates on their lawsuit (through mail, text, email or phone), some participants said they would likely trust the website if the web address was listed on an official document they received in the mail. This reflects the potential importance of the initial methods of communication. The participants who elaborated on this topic explained that receiving the document in the mail first would add legitimacy for them, “If I got it first, yeah. The paperwork like that, the claims when it says who is suing me, what it's for and that had the website link on it, then, yeah. But if I got this in an email, no, I wouldn't click on it.” Two additional Court A participants agreed with this statement.

Conclusion

The focus groups illuminated the importance of authenticity in court documents and websites, and the need to incorporate methods for confirming legitimacy. Participants’ concern about being scammed indicates that a barrier to using ODR may be a lack of trust. To address this barrier, courts should use official seals, have uniformity in appearance across all their communications and sites, and provide parties with easy-to-find contact information on all documents and websites.

The full report will be available on Resolution Systems Institute’s website, AboutRSI.org, in March.

RSI is grateful to the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation for its financial support for the OPEN (ODR Party Engagement) Project.

    Rachel Feinstein

    Resolution Systems Institute

    Rachel Feinstein is a researcher at Resolution Systems Institute. She is currently leading the ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project, which involves conducting six focus groups across three states to identify barriers to using traditional court communications for people with low-literacy and low income. Previously, Rachel earned a Ph.D. in Sociology from Texas A&M University before working as an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice for three years. She has published research on a variety of topics including inequality and the juvenile justice system. She can be reached at [email protected]

    Jennifer Shack

    Resolution Systems Institute

    Jennifer Shack is director of research at Resolution Systems Institute. She has more than two decades of experience conducting complex evaluations of court-based ADR programs and researching the effectiveness of mediation in court settings. Her projects include outcome and process evaluations of foreclosure, child protection, eviction and family mediation and online dispute resolution programs. She is currently conducting research into the best methods for courts to communicate with self-represented litigants about online dispute resolution and what mediators do that creates party trust. She can be reached at [email protected].

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