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The future of technology in mediation

Some risks and opportunities of ODR

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The potential of online dispute resolution (ODR) has long been discussed within the legal and mediation professions. But, three years ago, it was the story of 19-year-old Joshua Browder and his DoNotPay chatbot lawyer overturning some 160,000 parking tickets that caught the imagination of the global press. Browder became a poster child for how software could encourage more people to seek civil justice by making it simpler, faster and cheaper to contest a parking ticket than just to pay the fine.

For smaller disputes using chatbot technology to quickly assess a complainant’s chances of success and then, importantly, to provide them with the means to engage in the resolution process is not only time and cost-effective; it provides a more autonomous and private route to justice than pursuing court proceedings.

Commonly used on website and mobile apps, a chatbot is a piece of software that enables a human to interact with a computer database to find answers to their questions. Chatbots use natural language, artificial intelligence and search functionality to allow humans to ask questions and find relevant content. Some chatbots have been designed to help individuals gain access to justice. An individual with a legal problem but without the budget for a lawyer, or without access to legal advice, may be able to use a chatbot to find an answer to their query. In addition to DoNotPay, examples include Lexi, an Australian chatbot that can be used to create a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or privacy policy and Viasbot, designed to assist with immagration issues.

Clearly, this is more in line with today’s consumer expectations. If you’re used to booking a table at a restaurant, making contactless payments and ordering your supermarket shop, all with your smartphone, your expectation is for any transaction process to prioritise certainty and convenience over uncertainty and human interaction.

You could argue that taking humans out of the equation is equalising and more democratic, because it lowers the risk of human error, prejudice or even the time of day impacting negatively on the resolution process. Gone is the need to negotiate with a disgruntled civil servant working through their lunch hour, but, for now, humans will always be part of the equation.

As artificial intelligence goes, chatbots are among its more primitive incarnations and, like any software written by humans, they are only as strong as the datasets they can access. There are countless examples of “intelligent” technologies that show bias against ethic and minority people: from the driverless cars that only recognising caucasian pedestrians; to the facial recognition software falsely flagging suspects to the police at football games.

For now, lawyers and mediators can rest easy that online dispute resolution is not going to replace the need for human expertise and scrutiny for many years. For one, the technology is on its way but it is in its infancy and there is still a considerable shift in culture that will need to take place before both the public and regulated professionals will trust and accept automation in the pursuit of justice.

Arguably what is required is cooperation among the legal profession, technologists and regulators to reimagine the legal system as a whole in light of the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. With five billion people being failed by their justice systems globally, according to a report published by the Task Force on Justice, Scotland and the Law Society of Scotland’s Lawscot Tech initiative can pave the way for a future in which access to justice is open, online and accessible to all.

Callum Murray is CEO of Amiqus Resolution, an accredited mediator and Co-Chair of the Young Mediators’ Group.

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