Court Innovations: Making the Justice System More Accessible

Every year, as many as 75 million Americans cited for minor charges such as unpaid traffic fines are issued warrants — and forced to have their day in court. Typically, the experience is frustrating, confusing, time-consuming and expensive. But that could soon change, thanks to an online mediation system developed by a U-M law professor and his former student.

The idea for Court Innovations took shape in 2011 when Professor J. J. Prescott and third-year law student Ben Gubernick began discussing social issues stemming from inefficient access to the courts. As Gubernick explains, “Ninety-five percent of the cases making their way through the justice system involve minor criminal offenses that allow judges and prosecutors to exercise their discretion. We created Court Innovations in order to target those cases. Our goal is to make the courts more accessible by enabling litigants to negotiate and settle their cases online, fairly and conveniently.”

Starting in 2013, the project received Venture Center assistance to secure gap funding for prototype development and business modeling. At the same time, Mentor-in-Residence Ken Spenser, a software company executive with more than 30 years of experience, was assigned to assist with venture creation services. With Spenser’s help, the team refined their value proposition, cultivated potential customers, strengthened their patent portfolio and hired CEO Mary Jo Cartwright.

In the spring of 2013, a $270,000 grant from U-M’s Third Century Initiative enabled the team to complete the build out of their software and implement pilot programs in Michigan courtrooms. Feedback from magistrates, judges, court staff and litigants has been consistently positive. Now, with a second-phase grant of $2.77 million from the Third Century Initiative, Court Innovations has launched its first product, Matterhorn.

“Matterhorn improves the efficiency of the judicial system by providing an online negotiation system for defendants and the courts to resolve minor offenses,” said Cartwright. “By adopting Matterhorn, courts make a substantive step forward in helping to make justice more accessible and resolution of violations easier for courts and defendants. Matterhorn levels the playing field and is the technology that our courts have been seeking for a long time.”

Matterhorn enables the courts to act as the central role in connecting people and prosecutors to the justice system, optimizing the process and taking care of cases that don’t need to be heard in court. Its online tools offer:

• Efficiency: minimizing court, police, and citizen time saves costs
• Quality: upholding and improving judicial and prosecutorial discretion with targeted, online information
• Satisfaction: citizens accessing justice online, 24/7 via desktop or mobile

U-M’s Office of Tech Transfer has played an important role in company’s road from Law School to the courtroom. The company benefited from two rounds of Tech Transfer funding as it developed its online system, and was also connected to a service provider that could help it work through early development challenges. Throughout its evolution, Court Innovations has worked with Tech Transfer’s Mentors in Residence, receiving important, timely guidance and advice.

“Currently those with civil infractions are getting an initial court date on average of 21 days; with Matterhorn, from date of ticket issuance through to closing of the ticket is averaging 6.1 days,” said 30th District Court Judge Officer-Hill. Based in Highland Park, Mich., the 30th District Court was an early adopter of Matterhorn. “Based on the success that we’ve had with Matterhorn, we are excited to extend our online services to include warrants. Defendants are often afraid of being arrested, so they won’t come to court to take care of a warrant; Matterhorn offers the opportunity to have a warrant recalled without having to come to court at all.”

As Court Innovations continues to grow, it’s working with a Tech Transfer Mentor in Residence who’s helping the company refine its investor pitch. In the coming year, Court Innovations will continue to grow in the Midwest, with plans to expand nationally in 2016.

[Court Innovations is the first spinout from University of Michigan Law School.]