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March 2018

Online dispute resolution works! Here’s how

Justice just got quicker and easier for people with small-claims cases in British Columbia.

The Canadian province launched the nation’s first online tribunal in 2016. At first, the online dispute resolution system handled only condominium disputes. In June 2017, the system – called the Civil Resolution Tribunal – took jurisdiction over nearly all small-claims cases worth $5,000 or less.

The early results are encouraging, according to the developers and operators, who spoke at a panel discussion at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver. So far, the system has handled nearly 14,000 small-claims cases. Roughly 85 percent of the 700 cases resolved to date were settled. Only 12 went to decision at the tribunal.

More important, the online tribunal has made it much simpler for ordinary citizens to access the justice system with small disputes. Lawyers are generally prohibited from participating. Users fill out simple, easy-to-follow, step-by-step questionnaires online.

“Citizens are using technology in every area of their lives,” said Colin Rule, vice president of online dispute resolution at Tyler Technologies. “This is how you rebalance your 401k. This is how you sign your kid up for summer camp. And when they go to the courts and someone says your hearing is going to be in 120 days and you need to file this on paper, people go, ‘Is this 1983?’ This is just not the way society works.”

Ordinary people in Canada and the United States are demanding that their courthouses change, said Darin Thompson, legal counsel at the British Columbia Ministry of Justice. “People aren’t marching on Ottawa or Washington,” Thompson said. “They’re marching away from the courthouses. It’s up to us to figure out how we can change that.”

One sign that the British Columbia ODR system is working: About 45 percent of participants are using the tribunal’s online tools outside of traditional court hours – a tremendous convenience for people who can’t get away from work to go to court.

Another sign: Government money and personnel that used to be devoted to small-claims cases – including judges, sheriffs, clerks and others – are being redirected to reduce the backlog of criminal and family law cases.

Shannon Salter, who chairs the B.C. Civil Resolution Tribunal, said the greatest success is expanding public access to justice. “Being online is not the end goal,” she said. “The end goal is to take the justice system and go to where people are.”

Thompson demonstrated how the system works by leading the audience through the online forms for a fictional claimant named Sarah who bought a $2,500 refrigerator that was never delivered. He explained how the early steps are automated, but the later steps involve human mediators who try – usually successfully – to resolve disputes online, by phone and by email.

Salter said she knows some lawyers fear ODR will take away their work, especially if it can be expanded to more complex and lucrative disputes.

“My response to that, as a lawyer, is society doesn’t owe you a living,” Salter said. “If you make your living because justice processes haven’t changed since William the Conqueror and they’re still byzantine and they’re still complex and you happen to know how to navigate them, that is not an interest that society should protect. So if by simplifying processes we take away your work, you need to change the nature of your work.”

The event was co-sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division, the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution and the National Conference of Bar Presidents.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.
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