Resolve Minor Civil Infractions Online with Court Innovations

Imagine: You’re late for work and going 10 miles-per-hour over the speed limit to try to shave a few minutes off your commute, when you’re pulled over. The police officer gives you a ticket, but it’s more expensive than you anticipated. You want to take care of the matter quickly, though, before the late fees start piling up, so you e-mail the judge listed on the back of the ticket and set up a payment plan.

And just like that, the matter is taken care of—without the need to appear in court or spend 20 minutes on hold trying to get through to a clerk. This is the future as imagined by Court Innovations, a startup spun out of the University of Michigan’s law school.

“The whole premise is increased access to justice, especially for high-volume transactions,” says MJ Cartwright, Court Innovations’ CEO.

The technology was invented by J.J. Prescott, a professor at the law school, and Ben Gubernick, his former student. Their goal was to eliminate the need to physically show up to court, saving people time, money, and the frustration of dealing with a confusing, intimidating bureaucracy. Court Innovations officially launched in January, and there are six full-time employees plus a handful of interns currently running the company.

Cartwright says the Court Innovations software allows people to handle a range of minor civil infractions and communicate directly with judges over e-mail. Users can go to the Court Innovations website, enter their information, check for eligibility, and request a negotiated resolution. Eligible infractions include minor traffic violations, failure to appear, and failure to pay fines or court costs.

“There are thousands and thousands of warrants sitting out there, and they’re basically unresolved cases or failure to appear,” Cartwright says. “A lot of people don’t even know they have a warrant out for them or they can’t afford to pay the ticket. That can spiral to quite a set of fees.”

Cartwright says there are currently pilot projects underway in Bay and Washtenaw counties to test how Court Innovations’ technology works in busy, real-world courtrooms. “The main thing to prove was, will citizen-litigants use it, and how does the court feel about it?” she says. “Everyone who has used it so far can’t say enough good things.”

In fact, Magistrate Thomas Truesdell at 14A District Court in Washtenaw County gave the Court Innovations system high praise in an e-mail: “This system is working so well for our court that I would like to see it expanded to all the other courts.”

The Court Innovations pilot projects are supported by a $2.7 million grant from the global challenges arm of the Third Century Initiative, a five-year, $50 million plan administered by U-M’s Office of the Provost to develop innovative, multi-disciplinary solutions to some of society’s most urgent problems, and to spur creative thinking among students and faculty.

Cartwright says the ultimate goal is to convert the courts piloting the Court Innovations platform into paying customers, and then scale the company from there. “The idea is to extend the four walls of the courtroom online,” Cartwright adds. “Almost everyone has a story or can relate.”

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