2020 Distinguished Innovator of the Year

Creating online courthouses that improve access to justice and reduce disparities in our legal system earned J.J. Prescott, a University of Michigan law professor, this year’s Distinguished University Innovator Award. The award honors faculty who have developed transformative ideas, processes, or technologies and successfully brought them to market.
 
Prescott’s technology, called Matterhorn, is an online platform through which court users communicate with judges, law enforcement, and other parties to resolve warrants and a range of legal disputes, including traffic tickets, criminal misdemeanors, civil cases such as small claims and landlord-tenant litigation as well as domestic and family issues. Prescott founded University of Michigan spinout Court Innovations Inc. to commercialize Matterhorn.
 
Over 120,000 cases across 115 courts and court-connected mediation centers in 20 states have been resolved using Matterhorn, starting with the first pilots in Michigan in 2014.
 
Resolving outstanding legal issues, even minor ones, has historically required people to be physically present at in-person hearings. Requiring face-to-face proceedings places logistical and financial burdens on the public, including lost income due to missing work. These issues disproportionately affect socioeconomically vulnerable litigants, often acting as insurmountable barriers to appearing in court, and plunging this group into a cycle of negative consequences associated with the consequences of not appearing in court.
 
“People have long recognized that there’s an issue with accessing justice through physical courthouses and in person, but there’s been no other way to do it. This technology means there are now other options. From a reform perspective, these disparities our system produces become especially important because they are no longer necessary disparities. We do something about them,” Prescott said.
 
He began developing what would become Matterhorn in 2011, and initially approached the Office of Technology Transfer with questions about how to protect the software. But Prescott found the office was able to provide broader resources beyond patent protection that eventually led to Court Innovations Inc.
 
Through OTT, he found and participated in the National Science Foundation I-Corps program, which he describes as a mini business bootcamp that was key for Matterhorn’s customer discovery. Prescott was also introduced through OTT to Court Innovations CEO MJ Cartwright.
 
The change-resistant nature of court systems presented commercialization challenges for the innovative technology, which necessitated that Prescott and Court Innovations find creative ways to ensure Matterhorn’s success. This included working with courts to address logistical and legal concerns related to an online platform.
 
While the benefit of lowering court access barriers for the public is clear, courts themselves have also benefited from Matterhorn through the product’s ability to increase litigant participation in the resolution process, resulting in fewer outstanding fines and reduced administrative burdens as compared to in-person hearings.
 
Prescott added that the goal of Matterhorn is not to replace all in-person hearings but rather to provide an option for situations where it optimizes the court’s and the public’s experience.
 
The importance of having an online alternative to the court system has been made clear in the COVID pandemic, where Matterhorn has allowed dispute resolution to continue despite courthouse shutdowns.
 
For all parties involved, Matterhorn’s impact extends beyond its immediate purpose of enabling online court proceedings: data from Matterhorn has led to eight published or upcoming research studies, ranging from evaluating how an online platform can reduce disparate outcomes to evaluating the fairness of laws themselves.
 
On the latter, Prescott explained, “We might be under the impression that the law is working a certain way, but a lot of the outcomes we see may actually be determined simply by the cost of accessing courts.” He gives the example of a low-level misdemeanor, where litigants often take a plea bargain rather than fight the charge. The assumption is that because a litigant accepted the deal, they are probability guilty and that outcome is just or at least accurate. But because Matterhorn eliminates many cost-prohibitive elements that lead to a client refusing to fight, the legal system will become more accurate, aligning guilt rather than access-to-justice costs with punishment.
 
Matterhorn can also make it much easier to study and improve court operations, and policymakers or researchers can use it to better understand how courts, law enforcement, and the public behave when it comes to legal matters.
 
“If we think about randomized control trials as an excellent way to refine the way that we do things in courts, we don’t have a way to do that when courts are physical places. Matterhorn, as an adaptable online court, provides a laboratory,” Prescott said. Researchers can tinker with its interface to explore in micro-detail the impact of variables on usage, the successful resolution of disputes, and systemic disparities.
 
These variables range from the website’s appearance, to obscuring irrelevant information that belies a litigant’s age or gender, to adding a menu of payment options. All of these variables are easier to manipulate to explore their role in a virtual setting compared with a physical courthouse, Prescott explained.
 
The vice president for research selects recipients of the Distinguished University Innovator Award based on the recommendation of a selection committee that reviews a pool of nominees. The award was established in 2007 and is supported by endowments from the Office of Research and the Stephen and Rosamund Forrest Family Foundation.
 
Prescott received the award Sept. 21 at OTT’s 20th annual Celebrate Invention, held virtually this year. The event recognizes innovations from University of Michigan researchers.

To learn more about Prescott’s and Matterhorn’s success, OTT has made available a recording of Prescott’s virtual award ceremony, his remarks, and the associated panel discussion on accessing justice and democratizing the court system.