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U-M initiative transforming what it means to ‘go to court’

A gavel sits on a computer keyboard. (stock image)ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan is spearheading the development of what is believed to be the first-of-its-kind technology to help people who have been charged with minor offenses interact with courts online, without needing to hire an attorney.

The technology was invented by J.J. Prescott, a professor at the law school, and Ben Gubernick, his former student. Their goal was to increase and equalize citizen access to courts by creating an alternative to physically going to court, a process that can be time-consuming, confusing, and often intimidating.

The software provides a way for litigants with issues ranging from unpaid fines to minor civil infractions, including traffic tickets, to communicate directly with judges and prosecutors to find mutually agreeable ways to resolve their cases.

"When you look at how many cases courts process, you realize online interaction and resolution is the next frontier. Courts have so much potential to influence people's lives for the better," Prescott said.

"The challenge is removing barriers to access while making the most of judicial and prosecutorial wisdom and experience. We wanted to make sure the software wouldn't interfere with everything good that courts are already doing."

Gubernick said the technology won't replace courts.

"In-person interaction is necessary for a lot of work courts do," Gubernick said. "This technology targets only those cases where online interaction can be faster, fairer and less costly for everyone involved."

The project is part of the Global Challenges arm of U-M's Third Century Initiative, a $50 million, five-year program that is leveraging the university's interdisciplinary expertise to tackle some of society's most pressing problems while creating learning opportunities for students.

"The on-line courts project is a wonderful example of the type of work for which the Third Century Initiative's Global Challenges program was created: work that provides an innovative and promising approach to a pressing problem facing our nation," said Provost Martha Pollack. Prescott presented the work today at the monthly meeting of the U-M Board of Regents.

The technology is currently being piloted at the 14A District Court in Washtenaw County, Mich. Another pilot is scheduled to launch in Bay County, Mich., in August.

Response from the technology's users has been positive. Robert Ciolek, court administrator at 14A District Court, said the program has saved time for citizens, police officers, and court staff.

"It seems to be a win-win-win for all the participants," Ciolek said. "Processes that used to take whole days now take only minutes."

With funding through U-M's Third Century Initiative in place for the next two years, Prescott's team is preparing to scale the technology.

However, the team is thinking far beyond the next few years. Prescott has already worked with U-M Technology Transfer to create Court Innovations Inc., a startup that will provide support and maintenance for the software during the project and grow the business opportunities generated going forward.

The developers and U-M believe the technology can go national. "Court Innovations was founded to ensure post-project sustainability," said MJ Cartwright, the company's chief executive officer. "Our job over the next two years is to work with courts and state government groups to lay the foundation for the technology's complete transition from U-M-based research and development into a commercial solution that can continue to scale and grow in Michigan and across the nation."

Ken Nisbet, associate vice president for research at U-M Technology Transfer, said the company has leveraged Venture Center resources, including the Venture Accelerator, to create a compelling value proposition to improve our court system.

"This new venture is proof that entrepreneurial ideas are flourishing at Michigan Law," Nisbet said.