Have your day in court without being in court

U-M Law

A day in court is never a day at the beach. But for those who have trouble juggling work and family responsibilities in order to appear in court, or lack a way even to get there, something as minor as a traffic ticket can become a seemingly ceaseless stressor.

Michigan Law Professor J.J. Prescott and his former student, Ben Gubernick, saw technology as a solution. They launched Court Innovations Inc., a startup whose software allows people to address routine court matters—like unpaid fines or minor civil or criminal infractions—or even more involved ones—like small claims disputes or family court compliance issues—online.

“Having to appear in person for these types of matters is often a waste of time,” says Prescott. “You wait four hours to see someone, and then you exchange 25 words to resolve an issue. Beyond the frustration that such a wait causes, for some people it also creates real hardship.”

With a $2.77 million grant from U-M’s Third Century Initiative, Court Innovations launched its first product, Matterhorn, a dispute resolution platform, in 2014.

Today, about 30 courts in three states use Matterhorn to improve access and efficiency in resolving simple court matters. Matterhorn is not a robo-court nor an artificial intelligence judge. Court staff, judges, and law enforcement remain fully involved, yet everyone participates asynchronously from anywhere via the platform. Courts using the software have seen a 41 percent increase in the number of fines paid within 30 days and a 19 percent reduction in defaults.

“My goal from the beginning has been to catalyze change, and it’s exciting to see that change starting to happen,” Prescott says.

In 2017, Court Innovations raised a Series A funding round of $1.8 million, which Prescott hopes will allow Matterhorn to scale in more states.

With a grant from U-M’s Poverty Solutions Initiative, he also is exploring the problem of courts assessing penalties that people can’t afford. Prescott has developed an online assessment to gauge ability to pay, instead of relying on judges’ assumptions. The software can propose an evidence-based payment plan and can help people comply by sending them reminders.

“There is no real definition of ability to pay,” he says. “Our tool seeks to determine not just if someone can pay, but how disruptive it will be to do so, so judges can make informed decisions.”