All eyes are on Canada as court systems, one of society's oldest and most traditional institutions, faces growing pressure worldwide to move services online.
Canada is one of only a handful of countries that is actively adopting online dispute resolution on the government level, which includes British Columbia's new Civil Resolution Tribunal online system.
Described as Canada's first-ever online tribunal, the system is expected to launch sometime in 2015, and will allow for adjudication of certain homeowner disputes and many small claims matters.
Meanwhile, Quebec's PARLe tool is helping to resolve consumer disputes that are small and often not worthwhile to be taken to court.
According to The Future of Courts, a Thomson Reuters white paper, these Canadian systems, along with others being developed in places such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, will be closely watched by the legal profession as potential case studies for how courts could be run in future.
The change is being driven by new technologies, but also a need to save money and speed up communication, said Desmond Brady, head of government at Thomson Reuters.
"The costs and delay involved in a typical court case is quite breathtaking," said Brady, citing resources such as lawyers and judges but also the many support staff behind each player in the courtroom.
"The potential for costs to rack up through typical court proceedings is huge, especially when you consider the delay and having to set new hearings to hear the balance of the case, which is endemic in the court system."
Brady said moving some court proceedings online could be much more efficient, especially as governments around the world seek ways to streamline services and cut spending to help balance their budgets. It can also open up the justice system to more people looking to resolve disputes.
"A properly designed virtual online service can be a benefit not only for the court system, but for that person trying to navigate what is an incredibly complex and stressful situation without a great deal of understanding of how courts actually work," said Brady.
B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal hopes to be just that. Once launched, the system will handle disputes with a maximum claim of $25,000 relating to debts, damages, recovery of personal property, and certain types of condominium disputes.
The online tribunal will operate in several stages, starting with attempts to help users find possible solutions. Parties will then need to use the online negotiation platform to make statements and arguments. If there's no settlement, a tribunal case manager will then be appointed to try and settle the dispute through mediation online or over the telephone. If there is still no settlement, the case moves to a third and final stage of adjudication, which can take place over the phone or through videoconferencing. A decision is then made that will be final and binding.
Darin Thompson, legal counsel with B.C.'s Ministry of Justice, said the system compliments the existing court system, though he acknowledges that courts are well-established institutions and change may not happen quickly.
"The courts don't have to convert the way they do business … I think we can easily create these things to happen in addition to court … to help share the load," said Thompson, who is also member of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Working Group on online dispute resolution.
"We can still do a lot to change things ... and what better way to do that than with technology," he said.
Already, Courts are turning to videoconferencing and telepresence technologies to assist in cross-examination. Examples such as eBay's online dispute system, which resolves about 60 million disagreements each year, have also provided a model of how things could be done.
The final steps however, will ultimately be up to the people who work in the justice system, everyone from lawyers and judges to IT and administration staff.
According to the Future of Courts report, "the court is there to serve its community; and it is the way these people understand, react to and respond to the changing needs of that community, and the ongoing pressures of budgets and legislative demands, that will determine whether the courts in 20 years will be seen to have kept pace with modern times, or fallen off from the race."
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