Williamson County commissioners approve pilot program to speed up small claims lawsuits

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The Williamson County Commissioners Court approved a pilot program Tuesday that would cut the number of court appearances for individuals filing small claims lawsuits through a required online mediation process.

The program would use Modria, a software used by Amazon and eBay to handle disputes between buyers and sellers. Tyler Technologies Inc., a public sector software program used by Williamson County courts, has purchased Modria and applied its method to the court system in order to settle civil lawsuits not exceeding $10,000. The pilot program will go into effect July 1.

“What will eventually drown our [justice of the peace]courts is not criminal cases, but it’s the civil side that is really flaring up,” said Judge Bill Gravell, Williamson County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 3.

He said thousands of small claims lawsuits flood the justice of the peace courtrooms taking valuable time and resources better served elsewhere, to which Gravell said can be changed with the new software.

The new technology will not cost the county any money, nor will the county receive money from it. But the software will free up time in the courtrooms that cost $16,000 a day to operate by allowing judges to clear dockets and focus on jury and bench trials, Gravell said.

“We want everybody to have equal access to justice but every case we can reduce coming to court saves money [in operations],” he said.

Time and money will also be saved for the plaintiff and defendant in the lawsuit, Gravell said, as they do not have to appear in person to meet a court-ordered mediator, a process that often means taking time off of work.

The cost of filing a claim is $41, which is paid for by the individual filing the lawsuit. Currently, that person has to wait 45 days before they appear in court with the defendant. To which, Gravell said he would order both individuals to meet with a mediator within the next 45 days. If still unresolved, the two would request a court date to happen within three to six months.

The new software would allow individuals to air their grievances without stepping in a courtroom or waiting months for a resolution.

The individual suing would still have to file a complaint—which can be done online—and is still charged $41. Following the filing, the defendant will be served and receive an email with the complaint, which starts the mediation process, Gravell said.

Through an algorithm, generated responses are sent back and forth until the issue is resolved, Gravell said. This is how Amazon and eBay address most disputes, he added.

Both parties are charged $30 each for the process, which goes to Tyler Technologies, Gravell said.

“I call this pajama justice,” Gravell said. “It’s the ability of folks sitting home in their pajamas to get emails from the opposing side and see if they can’t reach a resolution.”

While not all disputes will be resolved this way, Gravell said he believes many will. He said even if the new software only lessens the number of cases that appear before his court by 10 percent, it allows him and his court more time to focus on other cases.

“I think it’s an opportunity for people to get through court quickly to resolve their cases,” Gravell said. “Really what [the program]would be doing is diverting civil cases from the court system.”

The Williamson County’s Justice of the Peace Precinct 3 courtroom is one of two test pilot courtrooms in Texas with the second in Travis County. There are only five test pilots in the country, Gravell said. But success has been seen in European and African courtrooms, he added.

Gravell, who is running for county judge, said there are 15 courts in Williamson County, which means they have to start thinking outside the box or they will continue to have the same results, adding that “delayed justice is no justice.”

If the pilot program is deemed successful, Gravell said he believes it will be adopted statewide and nationwide, with the next step of possibly bringing the software to the criminal court system to deal with class C misdemeanors.

“Access to justice is incredibly important to me,” Gravell said. “This is the future of justice.”

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Ali Linan
Ali Linan began covering Georgetown for Community Impact Newspaper in 2018. Her reporting focuses on education and Williamson County. Ali hails from El Paso and graduated from Syracuse University in 2017.
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