September 2006 – The VirtualCourthouse Story
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt (Ret.)
The VirtualCourthouse.com™ vision is a product of two facets of my judicial career. First, in my role as a Circuit Court Judge and secondly, during what I like to call, my personal “electronic epiphany”.
During the course of 20 years, I tried over 1000 Jury Trials and over 10,000 settlement conferences. For 5 of those years, I tracked every jury verdict in my court (from 23 Judges), the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. The results of my findings consistently led me to the same conclusion; there had to be a more efficient way to resolve disputes. I observed, on a daily basis, both parties consuming considerable personal and community resources to reach a fairly predictable result. My experiences taught me that most (over 80%) of the trials involved similar subject matter and that the verdicts were consistently the same. My desire as a Judge was to remedy the process, with the end result being that both parties would avoid the time, expense and emotional distraction of a trial, especially when the results were demonstrably predictable. For instance, with personal injury cases, I observed that the same injuries, sprains/ strains of the back and neck, herniated/ bulging/ inflamed disks, shoulder injuries, knee injuries and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders were invariably the subject of most litigation and trials. The pathway to improvement I discovered was paved with technology.
Then there was my personal “electronic epiphany”. My efforts to introduce to the Courts and the Bar the process of electronic filing of court documents and the electronic case file were a real education about the potential of technology. These initiatives opened my eyes to the vast efficiencies available through the personal computer, networks, scanning and the Internet. The promise of doing business in a paperless environment was becoming a reality. This reality is the foundation of the VirtualCourthouse.com™ vision.
VirtualCourthouse.com™ (“VCH”) is an Internet-based service that enables parties to submit disputed claims, responses and supporting material in digital form for resolution by a neutral provider of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services. These ADR services can include arbitration, mediation, neutral case evaluation or a settlement conference by members of a panel of neutrals. Using VirtualCourthouse.com™ for an arbitration, mediation or Neutral Case Evaluation, the parties accomplish the following on the Internet: (i) Agree on a neutral; (ii) Present the documents which support their case; (iii) Have access to an Online Case File; (iv) Schedule a face to face hearing, if necessary; and (v) Receive the Neutral’s Decision.
VCH creates a marketplace by recruiting the neutrals, administering the electronic case file, and providing access to the system to members of the plaintiff and defense bar, including insurance staff counsel, claims agents and the parties.
VCH provides an independent forum by enabling parties to select qualified neutrals (typically judges or attorneys with specific experience), submit digitized materials, schedule an ADR event and track other activities throughout the effort to resolve the claim. Critical to the design of this service is its neutrality: VCH impartially facilitates neutral selection by providing structured communication among parties via a controlled and secure message service. Any party can attach digital exhibits such as digital photographs or scanned images of medical records. The Neutral can use the message service to communicate with parties. VCH streamlines every step in the process and minimizes the need and costs of unnecessary face-to-face meetings, mailing, and copying.
The VCH Dispute Resolution Engine (DRE) is a combination of multimedia technologies and business processes, integrated with a customer-friendly user interface. The DRE replicates the current process of dispute resolution in an online environment, removing constraints of time, expense and distance. The engine is a sequence of events utilizing Internet-based media technologies that are designed to resolve conflicts between two or more parties. The DRE enables the resolution of disputes by functioning as a middleware to connect the disparate business processes of attorneys, claimants and neutrals. The DRE permits the exchange of data between these business processes which would otherwise lack the technology interfaces essential to working together electronically. The engine, centralized through VirtualCourthouse.com™ is the electronic “glue” that binds these users of otherwise unrelated systems into a virtual private data and business process network.
The Internet creates an online marketplace for dispute resolution by bringing together parties with disputes and neutrals seeking a storefront for their services. Registered users are able to visit the “virtual” court 24/7, review the docket and conduct any proceedings under way. Lawyers are able to check on the status of their cases, view documents and make filings at any time. Case administration for the parties and the neutral by a case administrator is minimized as case administration activities are automated through the virtual private data and business process network
As of September, 2006 there have been nearly 600 cases initiated in Virtualcourthouse.com™. Strategic alliances have been formed with insurance companies (GEICO, MAIF, and State Farm) and over 25 law firms in the Baltimore/Washington Metropolitan Area. Many law firms are adopting the policy of initiating a case in VirtualCourthouse before they file suit in court.
VirtualCourthouse.com™ requests the parties to complete a formal evaluation at the conclusion of each case. Users consistently rate the service with high marks because it is inexpensive, fast and fair.
Inexpensive. The cost of a case resolution is $200 per party ($50 filing fee and ½ of a $300 neutral fee). Jeffrey Wigodsky of Karp, Frosh, Lapidus, Wigodsky, Norwind, a plaintiff’s lawyer in Washington D.C. reports that; “Virtual Courthouse provides the parties with a fast and easy mechanism to resolve disputed claims. The cost pales in comparison to litigation and other alternative dispute programs and you’re guaranteed that the case will be heard by an experienced litigator or judge. I support the program wholeheartedly”. Cy Picken, a retired State Farm House Counsel, now an active Mediator and Arbitrator says; “I firmly believe that VCH is an extremely effective mechanism to help parties resolve their disputes in a cost effective manner through the use of technology and would not hesitate to recommend VCH for parties who want their disputes resolved expeditiously.”
Fast. Most cases are resolved in less than 30 days. As the parties become familiar with the processes, the time is often under 7 days. A neutral decision is filed usually in under 24 hours after the case presentation is complete. A MAIF Adjuster is thrilled because; “The process just keeps getting better and better! The turnaround on this case was about 2 hours”.
Fair. The parties consistently evaluate the result as a fair result. A Geico adjuster states in a formal evaluation; “My experience with Virtual Courthouse was very favorable. The presentation format was easy to use, the customer support readily available, and the arbitration decision came within a few days and was fair to both parties. This is a great format for a fair, fast decision.”
While there are many positive achievements, VirtualCourthouse is still in its infancy and many challenges remain. The principle barrier is resistance to change. It is difficult for folks to learn new skills and to discard old suppositions. People become comfortable with the way they do their work and are uncomfortable with change. Examples of barriers to overcome are;
1. I do not know how to scan or don’t have a scanner
2. The neutral needs to see my client
3. My office only has one internet connection
The good news is that the VirtualCourthouse team is experienced and skilled at helping people overcome these and other barriers. As each new case is completed folks realize that the process really helps them get the case to an inexpensive, fast and fair conclusion. Additional information can be obtained by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and by visiting http://www.virtualcourthouse.com and http://www.montyahalt.com/vc.htm.