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DIY Law: What is the Future of Online Dispute Resolution?

In our last blog, we set out to allay fears that the growth of LegalTech was in danger of automating lawyers out of a job, and instead put forward the argument that technology was in fact helping professionals work more efficiently and effectively.

However, it has to be acknowledged that in one area at least, technology is already threatening to do the lawyers’ jobs for them – online dispute resolution.

Online dispute resolution (ODR) essentially boils down to using technology to resolve disputes. It has earned the ‘online’ moniker from the now-common practice of making the software available via the internet.

In basic terms, the parties involved in a dispute can access a web portal (usually for a fixed fee), enter details as prompted, and then let the technology do whatever needs to be done to achieve a resolution. There are a wide range of applications, with ODR platforms being used for:

• Negotiation, particularly in financial blind bidding cases where liability is not challenged. Based on the information the parties submit, the ODR platform will bounce ‘bids’ or offers of settlement back and forth until agreement is reached.

• Mediation, where technology is used in an assistive capacity to help parties with information management and presentation, or in other words building and making their case. Platforms that operate along these lines have been used to manage disputes between buyers and sellers on online marketplaces such as eBay.

• Adjudication, which is the area that makes legal professionals feel their toes are being stepped on most. Although in its infancy, there are those who believe that online negotiation and mediation platforms could be extended to making decisions in disputes, much like an arbitrator. If the parties entered a contract to use the adjudication service, such decisions would be legally binding.

For advocates of online dispute resolution, it provides a solution to two pressing problems facing the legal world – access to justice, and the question of jurisdiction in the increasingly borderless digital world.

If people are able to make a claim or resolve a dispute simply by visiting a website, more people are likely to seek justice as it is much more straightforward than hiring a lawyer. And in international disputes, for example where a buyer and seller from different countries end up at loggerheads, technology can resolve the logistical issues of where and how cases are heard, and under which jurisdiction.

Should lawyers be worried? Certainly the prospect of people being able to resolve their disputes without recourse to hiring a professional does not sound ideal for those offering such services.

Much will depend on whether the technology does evolve significantly into the areas of arbitration and adjudication. Even then, you would have to assume that such platforms would only be able to handle relatively straightforward, low value cases – which is mainly where negotiation and mediation ODR services are being used now.

It is extremely doubtful that large corporations would be happy to see their multi-million dollar lawsuits presided over by AI. Not for the foreseeable future, anyway.

The final point to make is that the legal profession should perhaps strive to see ODR as an opportunity, not a threat. Those that are developing and offering such services are doing so because they have found a market for them and they can make money from it.

Would it be such a bad thing if firms could offer a web portal that handled all of its bitty, small, low value claims and disputes for a fixed fee, leaving lawyers free to focus on higher prizes?