Ann Arbor company aims to improve equity and fairness in courts through online dispute resolution

This article is part of a series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

"Justice for all" is a fundamental American concept that doesn't align with reality for many citizens, but Ann Arbor software company Matterhorn is attempting to turn the words into action. Matterhorn has created an online dispute resolution platform that allows individuals to handle a variety of court issues online rather than physically going into a court. Matterhorn offers increased access, fairness, and customer satisfaction for people who may experience challenges going to a court in person.
 
"Those who could not get to court to pay their fines receive more court fees and increased fines," says Matterhorn CEO MJ Cartwright. "It's all about access to justice." 
 
Matterhorn started seven years ago, aiming to help individuals resolve online disputes such as traffic violations, warrants, and family court issues such as mediation. 
 
"We strive to help people get access regardless of their racial and economic status," Cartwright says. "... We want people to have all their paperwork up to date and have a clean record so that they can have access to the legal system in the same way as others."
 
Cartwright refers to the publication "Are Litigation Outcome Disparities Inevitable? Courts, Technology, and the Future of Impartiality," co-authored by Matterhorn founder and University of Michigan law professor J.J. Prescott, which explores the implicit biases in human decision-making. By hosting online court proceedings, Matterhorn offers new hope for curtailing disparities in the court system by eliminating face-to-face interactions, thereby mitigating unwarranted bias. These biases and disparities fade with online rather than face-to-face interactions, according to the research. 
 
With technology like Matterhorn, clients not only have the ability to reduce the degree to which their physical characteristics play a role in legal proceedings, but also may change the nature of communication in litigation and rearrange the structure of the process. According to the study, the technology also has the potential to reveal long-hidden structural tendencies toward disparity, if not implicit bias, in judicial decision-making.
 
Currently Matterhorn is available in about 90 locations, most of them in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, and Arkansas. Matterhorn plans on launching in over 150 different locations across the country. Some of these locations will be in areas that have a higher Black and brown population, such as Detroit, Miami, and Atlanta, where income levels are low and the need is considerably high. 
 
"We want to make sure that people are represented correctly. Most people can't afford an attorney," Cartwright says. 
 
Cartwright also notes that some Matterhorn cases may be a simple traffic stop, while others can be more serious felonies. Matterhorn services were designed for mobile devices, to ensure that everyone can access them. The system is designed to be easy to use to remove as many barriers as possible for all users. 
 
Some Matterhorn users have given anonymous testimonials to Matterhorn's effects on their lives. 
 
"I could have appeared in court, but it would have made it very difficult because I work midnight(s) and also take care of my autistic son," one user said. "I'm sure there are other people out there in my same situation, so I think it's great."
 
Another user, who is disabled, said Matterhorn has helped them avoid "a disastrous chain reaction of debt." Others have said it was an easy, fair, and quick way to resolve issues within the court system. 
 
While Matterhorn works to address equity issues within the courts, the company is also aiming to address diversity issues on its own staff. Although Matterhorn isn't currently hiring, Cartwright says the company is always aiming to hire more diverse employees. 
 
"Most applicants who apply to work with us are mostly white males and we have to make sure in our own company that we represent everyone," Cartwright says. 
 
Learn more about traffic ticket resolution with Matterhorn and warrant resolution with Matterhorn.

Monica Hickson is a freelance writer currently based in Ypsilanti. 

All photos courtesy of Matterhorn.
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