The ease of access in this online system could help drive down the number of default judgments, presuming both sides act in good faith. Will it, though? “We don’t have enough long term research to be able to answer that question yet, but intellectually it makes sense to me,” said Danielle Hirsch, a consultant at the National Center for State Courts.

The case for using online legal chats is even clearer when it comes to lower-stakes disputes, such as those concerning traffic tickets. Even when they don’t deserve a ticket, drivers may end up paying to avoid the hassle of an interaction with the courts. “A lot of times people have to sit for a full day to contest their ticket, and a lot of times they don’t contest it,” said Amy Schmitz, a law professor at the University of Missouri who studies ODR.

In states like Michigan, Connecticut, and Arizona, which have been piloting online chats for traffic citations, there is some evidence of better outcomes. In Michigan, an initial estimate found that an ODR system called Matterhorn cut the rate of defaults on traffic tickets from 20 percent to 2 percent. Meanwhile, Utah’s pajama court for small-claims cases has seen rates of default drop from 71 percent to 54 percent.

Over the last several months—and with the possible eviction tsunami looming—more and more localities have started experimenting with ODR for cases involving landlord/tenant disputes. The most comprehensive of these is probably Michigan’s MI-Resolve platform, which launched across the state in July. It has handled about 300 cases so far, so far limited to small claims and certain kinds of low-stakes landlord-tenant disputes, such as the return of a security deposit. The state is planning to expand the platform to take eviction cases in the coming weeks.

Nuccio’s pilot program in Story County, Iowa is building on those ideas. It’s also adding something new, by directing users of the system to community organizations such as Iowa Legal Aid, Story County Legal Aid, and Iowa Community Alliances. These groups can connect distressed tenants with volunteer lawyers, or help them access public assistance programs. In other words, the ODR platform is meant to function something like an eviction diversion program.

“We want the tenants to understand that they do have rights, they do have a defense, but the bottom line is to get at the underlying issues and supply them with the tools to keep their homes,” said Nuccio.

In theory, ODR can shrink the power imbalance between landlords and the tenants whom they’re trying to evict. But the system can only do so much. In one scenario, both parties may get online, but there’s nothing to guarantee that they’ll actually resolve their dispute. In another, landlords who know they have the edge in formal hearings—particularly the ones who are filing large numbers of evictions—could ignore the platform altogether.

These tiny pilot programs can’t solve our current crisis. But they might presage a much bigger revamp of an eviction court system that remains inaccessible to the working-class people balancing jobs and childcare that it so often targets. The fact that something as simple as an online chat could help keep people in their homes invites certain, deeper questions: Why do we churn through eviction cases in such high numbers—and so quickly? Why do we make it so difficult for defendants to appear in person? How can it be fair that landlords almost always have lawyers and tenants almost never do?

Imagine an ODR system that, unlike Story County’s, actually required landlords to use it before filing for an eviction. Would a virtual legal discussion, overseen by a mediator or legal aid volunteer (or both), give tenants a fighting chance against some evictions cases? At the very least, it might act as a filter, and a means of keeping the most tractable cases from overwhelming state eviction courts.

“The most exciting thing about ODR is the idea of trying to innovate and change rules to make it easier for all parties,” said Hirsch, the consultant for the National Center for State Courts. The online tools could end up as a “Trojan horse that helps modernize courts because you’re thinking about things in a new way.”

Photographs: Serhii Brovko/Getty Images; Steve Proehl/Getty Images

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