From New York, an interesting institutional approach to small-stakes dispute resolution: the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH).

According to the article, OATH was created in 1979 as an “independent alternative” to internal agency tribunals. Over the years, OATH has slowly gained jurisdiction over a wide variety of cases, many of which are community/neighborhood-level concerns. Judges are called “hearing officers” and do not specialize in any particular types of cases, but must instead be ready to intervene and adjudicate in a variety of situations. Consider, for example, one hearing officer’s account of a case of rat infestation:

“One of the odder pieces of evidence we got was from someone who had gotten a summons from the department of health for having a rat infestation on her property,” said James Moore, a supervising hearing officer. “Her entire defense was that ‘I have many cats on the property to control the rat population.’ She submitted photos of all her cats. Except that two of them were raccoons.

“As a practical matter,” he added, “having a bunch of cats is not an acceptable rodent abatement plan.”

Were those raccoons just living among the cats, as cats? Wouldn’t that be something? Probably they were part of the infestation and when she took pictures of the cats, the raccoons were just boldly in attendance.

Anyway, for ADR specialists, the OATH may provide an example of an institutionalized process that supports party empowerment and some self-determination. The article notes that 44% of the 223,000 summonses contested last year were dismissed, and then goes on to suggest that people may be succeeding at OATH in part because OATH helps prepare them for their hearings:

Last year, OATH opened a help center at each office, where respondents can go to have charges explained and get a primer on procedure. A help center worker might tell the respondent about some common defenses, like the ‘reasonable effort’ defense — since you can’t be expected to clean the sidewalk in front of your house 24 hours a day, if you testify that you regularly clean twice a day, that is often sufficient.

Creating “help centers” and other public education facilities seems to me to be an important mission of legal services and law schools generally.

Jennifer Reynolds is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon Law and the Faculty Director of the ADR Center. Teaching civil procedure, conflicts of law, negotiation, and mediation, her research interests include dispute systems design, problem-solving in multiparty scenarios, judicial attitudes toward ADR, and cultural influences and implications of alternative processes. She is also a contributor to ADR Prof Blog.