“Some changes are so slow, you don’t notice them, others are so fast, they don’t notice you.” —Ashleigh Brilliant
BC’s Innovative online system resolves thousands of legal disputes—usually without lawyers.
On July 13, 2016, the legal world changed in a small but significant way when an Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) Tribunal started taking its first cases in British Columbia, Canada. BC’s Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) drew on prior private law examples such as eBay and PayPal’s ODR resolution platform. EBay was the proof of concept of ODR: By 2010, it was handling over 60 million disputes each year, most of which were fully resolved by the parties without any additional human intervention.
This development came after academics, scholars, the United Nations, universities, governments, private industry, lawyers and nonlawyers long debated the potential of using the power, reach and resources of the internet to settle legal disputes. This was the first time government provided a mechanism for parties to settle a dispute in a totally online forum.
THE ORIGINS OF ODR
Colin Rule, who played a leading role in the creation of PayPal’s ODR platform, is one of two recipients of the 2020 inaugural Frank E.A. Sander Innovation in ADR Award from the ABA Center for Innovation and the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution. Rule has led the development and expansion of ODR since 1999, but over the past five years he has been a key driver behind international efforts to expand access to justice by integrating court ODR into the legal system.
Much of the work in the field of ODR is based, directly or indirectly, on Rule’s innovative thinking and work in this area while first at eBay, then Modria, an ODR provider, and latterly as vice president for ODR at Tyler Technologies, together with his colleagues’ work from the National Center for Technology & Dispute Resolution (http://odr.info) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
There are two general types of ODR. One type focuses on using the algorithmic power of computers to help people resolve their issues. This branch uses computing power to help parties reach an optimized solution that both sides can accept, or it can help parties overcome obstacles and reach agreement.
And per a 2013 Canadian Arbitration and Mediation Journal column, “Online Dispute Resolution: The Future of ADR,” written in conjunction with Rule and Dr. Frank Fowlie:
The second [type of ODR] focuses on using computers to facilitate human communication. Instead of having the computer processor analyze data and make recommendations, this branch uses information and communications technologies to assist the interaction between the parties, helping them to reach mutually acceptable solutions. … The computer is used to create a virtual meeting space, one specifically tailored to best meet the needs of the disputants.
This second type of ODR is what the CRT is patterned on.
IMPLEMENTATION OF THE CRT
Since its launch, the CRT’s jurisdiction has steadily expanded. On July 13, 2016, the system began accepting disputes involving owners and tenants of condominium properties and corporations. On June 1, 2017, its jurisdiction expanded to small claims (all disputes $5,000 and under, such as debt or damages, recovery of personal property, personal injury and specific performance of agreements involving personal property or services). On April 1, 2019, its jurisdiction was expanded again to include certain motor vehicle accident disputes. For instance, if the CRT determines that a person’s injury is minor, damages for pain and suffering are limited to $5,500.
Importantly, the CRT’s jurisdiction is not concurrent with the courts; it is exclusive—and the vast majority of CRT decisions are final and binding on the parties. Within its legal jurisdiction, a claimant has a very limited ability to move a dispute out of the CRT to the courts. Furthermore, there is limited ability to challenge the decision of the CRT; a party unhappy with the outcome can, in most cases, only apply for judicial review of the decision on a standard of patent unreasonableness. In small claims matters, a party may file a notice of objection, which results in a new process being started in the Provincial Court. However, a financial deposit may need to be made, and the Provincial Court may assess a penalty if the person objecting doesn’t receive a better outcome than the CRT decision.
THE CRT PROCESS
As a starting place, the CRT platform contains a Solution Explorer that includes legal information and self-help tools in such areas as buying and selling, housing, loans and debts, construction, employment, insurance and property, as well as general disputes. The platform then guides potential parties through a question-and-answer protocol to lead them to relevant legal information.
For example, assume someone had a prepaid purchase card (a gift card preloaded with a certain amount of money) and was charged a fee by a merchant for using the card. The Solution Explorer would guide the party to information that would inform them that, under British Columbia law, such a fee may not be charged, and explains to the party how to claim a refund by writing to Consumer Protection BC and filing a complaint.
If the nature of the complaint is such that a legal claim needs to be initiated, then the Solution Explorer provides online guides on how to file a claim. A case is initiated by completing the appropriate form from the “Make a Claim with the CRT” webpage. The CRT is designed to try to assist the parties to craft their own solution. If a solution cannot be reached by negotiation between the parties or facilitated by a CRT case manager, then a hearing can be held by the CRT. This hearing can take place by email, by electronic submissions, paper submissions or, in rare occasions, via an oral hearing by telephone, videoconference or in person. Evidence can be submitted, including expert evidence.
The CRT is certainly applying a different mindset to the process of civil dispute resolution––largely without lawyers. In proceedings before the CRT, the ability to be represented by a lawyer is curtailed.
THE ROLE OF ATTORNEYS
As of June 2020 [ED: the original article has earlier stats, this version has been updated], the CRT has handled 17,238 disputes—14,362 small claims and 2,701 strata property disputes. The system has closed 15,644 disputes, including 13,187 small claims disputes, and 2,333 strata disputes were closed and of those, 907 strata property disputes were determined by adjudication. There were much smaller numbers of motor vehicle disputes and society and cooperative association disputes, and 78 percent of participants would recommend the CRT to others, according to the Civil Resolution Tribunal’s April 2020 Participant Satisfaction Survey.
Albert Einstein once said: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels.” The CRT is certainly applying a different mindset to the process of civil dispute resolution—largely without lawyers. In proceedings before the CRT, the ability to be represented by a lawyer is curtailed.
In motor vehicle injury disputes, litigants can automatically be represented by a lawyer. However, in most other cases, parties need to ask the CRT for permission if they want to be represented by a lawyer. And, in all cases, if a party wants someone other than a lawyer to represent them, they must receive permission. There are exceptions for minors and persons with impaired mental capacity. At any time during the tribunal process, a case manager or tribunal member can restrict the participation of a person providing representation or assistance in the tribunal process.
Traditionally, lawyers have opposed changes to the adversarial method of dispute resolution. Lawyers can continue to oppose meaningful changes to the legal and justice system that would result in greater access to justice; however, they do so at their peril. They may just wake up one day and find that change happened, and that change did not include them. The example of the CRT is just one of those changes that is likely to expand and fundamentally change the process of dispute resolution. LP
(This article appeared originally in the Big Ideas Issue, Law Practice Magazine, July 1, 2020 (https://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_practice/publications/law_practice_magazine/2020/ja2020/ja20bilinsky/).