Technology and the future of dispute resolution

Laura Keily, Founder and Managing Director of Immediation

Resolving disputes amicably and without resort to violence is crucial to a civilised society.  Such methods of resolving disputes have been recorded since ancient civilisations. In ancient Greece, overcrowded courts led to parties resorting to arbitration.  In Australia, indigenous customary laws have included effective methods of dispute resolution for thousands of years. Conventional methods of dispute resolution – along with the court system – are incorporated into religious texts and a biblical “first” dispute negotiation between God and Abraham is represented in Genesis. The practice of negotiated or arbitrated dispute resolution is wide-ranging and reverberates through history. 

Fast forward to the 21st Century and while the nature of our disputes may have changed significantly, facilitating methods of effective dispute resolution is still crucial.  The need for negotiated or arbitrated dispute resolution is ever-growing and more demanding than ever, with increased volume and complexity of disputes caused by growing populations, increased connectivity, globalisation and a proliferation of digitally documented and recorded material. 

We are fortunate that the development of the internet and cloud-based software can act as a counterweight.  Today’s lawyers have the opportunity to use this technology to build and implement solutions to counteract such increased volume and complexity of disputes which would otherwise continue to put pressure on the traditional court and tribunal system. 

Change is underway

While the legal industry as a whole has been steadfastly determined in its resistance of technological innovation, in recent years the aversion has waned. Recognising the transformative potential and under growing pressure from consumers, innovators have turned their attention to dispute resolution,  testing different forms of technology-assisted processes to try and meet the modern-day demand for more accessible and transparent services.  

According to the 2019 Annual State of the Legal Market Report, there are currently 123 Australian legal tech firms – 76 per cent of which have been established in the last nine years alone. The growth of such a market is indicative of a shift in the legal industry’s attitude. Recognising both the potential for return on investment and the needs of its consumers, the industry is increasingly looking for new ways to streamline traditional legal processes – and in particular, to resolve disputes. 

Can technology successfully improve access to justice?

While embracing the benefits of technology and the potential of its contribution to our justice system is an essential first step, the second – and significantly more important– step is designing solutions that not only accommodate the needs of the average user but can facilitate a just and effective outcome.

In the 2018 Inaugural Supreme Court ADR Address at the Australian Disputes Centre, Chief Justice Bathurst AC discussed the effects of technology on alternative dispute resolution and the courts in the near future. Aside from the clear social drive towards tech solutions, Justice Bathurst concluded that collaboration between the executive arm of government, the courts and ADR professionals is essential to ensuring the correct technology is built and then effectively integrated into our justice system. 

Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) technology is now a frequent topic of discussion amongst industry professionals exploring technology-based solutions. Solving the problem of how to deliver ODR to the market in a way that meets the expectations of lawyers and clients is extremely complex.  While widely accepted as the future of dispute resolution, it’s crucial that ODR trailblazers trying to infiltrate the legal market understand the intricacies of the current market and target platforms accordingly. They need to be realistic in their expectations – by no means is every case is appropriate for ODR – before building and pushing a technology-driven solution to scale. 

The dispute resolution industry – and to a lesser extent, the legal industry as a whole – is in the midst of a technological transformation. While creating more opportunities for lawyers, primarily it means that clients no longer need to rely solely on lengthy and costly, traditional methods of resolving disputes. 

While the exact impact of this transformation is not yet measured or measurable, it is clear that the new wave of technology can only serve to improve outcomes, provided that the proposed solutions are carefully constructed with respect for and deep domain understanding of the benefits and challenges of our current systems.