Will online legal solutions mean justice for all?

@IE University

More courts are going virtual for conflict resolution following the lead of internet giant eBay.

Millions of buyers and sellers on web-based auction site eBay successfully use its automated online dispute resolution tool to settle claims every year.

Its online dispute resolution system and others like it are now being picked up by national governments and the judiciary worldwide, who are adapting the way they do law to meet the needs of the 21st-century litigants – effectively replacing judges with computers and the courtroom with the internet.

Clickable justice will certainly be user-friendly and a new area for legal innovation. Only time will tell what impact the change will have on the quality of justice and the legal system as a whole.

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Clickable justice will certainly be user-friendly and a new area for legal innovation.

As traditional legal services increasingly become out of reach for all but the wealthy, emerging digital technology is providing a way to provide access to justice to those of more moderate means, so that they can solve their disputes without the need of a lawyer of a trip to the court. Legal technology expert and IT adviser to several national governments, Professor Richard Susskind, suggests that online court solutions should be explored because they are cheaper, faster and simpler for users.

But while supporters claim the technology improves access to justice and frees up court time to deal with more complex cases, others warn that vulnerable people, who may be less technologically able, will be ill-served by a machine rather than a human lawyer.

“For an extra €360 separating couples can ask for a professional mediator and, in the final instance, a binding decision from an adjudicator”

The online legal solutions that have been rolled out work in a similar way to eBay’s system – using algorithms to guide users through a series of questions and explanations to help them reach a settlement by themselves. Also like ebay, there is a judge or some form of arbitrator for those who cannot reach agreement among themselves. Since 2007 the Dutch government’s legal aid board has operated a platform called Rechtwijzer, (Roadmap to Justice). The online platform helps around 700 separating or divorcing couples a year to handle their break-up and ancillary issues like custody and child-support by themselves.

Couples pay €100 ($111) to access Rechtwijzer, which asks them questions about themselves and uses algorithms to find areas of agreement and suggests solutions. A tool calculates child support and software drafts an agreement. For an extra €360 couples can ask for a professional mediator and, where negotiations break down, a binding decision from an adjudicator, which happens in around 5% of cases.

Beyond the Netherlands

Earlier this year British Colombia in Canada set up an online civil tribunal to enable citizens to deal with small-value property and land disputes. The system is initially voluntary, but will eventually become mandatory. In the UK judges are helping to design a computerized court system to deal with civil claims.

Last February a report from the UK government’s Civil Justice Council, led by Susskind and backed by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, called for the creation of an eBay-style online court to resolve claims of up to £25,000. Later in the year Lord Justice Briggs picked up the theme in his interim review on civil court reform, calling it the “single most radical and important structural change” that will enable civil disputes of “modest value and complexity” to be justly resolved without the “disproportionate cost of legal representation”.

“Civil disputes of modest value and complexity can be justly resolved without the disproportionate cost of legal representation”

Lord Justice Briggs, England & Wales Court of Appeal

In line with Susskind’s recommendations, Briggs said cases would be dealt with in three stages, beginning with a largely automated, interactive online process to identify the issues and lodge documentary evidence, followed by conciliation and case management by case offices, before resolution by a judge.

As more and more countries seek to develop online innovations, will justice suffer, is it justice on the cheap, or can online justice ever be as good as the courts?

 **Written by: The Report Company for IE University