If you pit the wisdom of the masses against Judge Judy, who would win? If Lance Soskin has anything to say about it, online dispute resolution may one day displace traditional arbitration and mediation to help people avoid the hassle and cost of going to court.
Whether it’s a consumer complaint or a custody battle, anyone can post their side of the story on the site and invite the other party to respond. The public then weighs-in, providing crowd-sourced advice to help solve the problem.
“eQuibbly’s public dispute option is based on the premise that although you will get the odd idiot voting once in a while, for the most part the community’s opinion in aggregate will be valid, reasoned, logical and wise,” said Soskin, a former investment banker and lawyer who started the site.
Based in Toronto, but targeting people across the continent, the site also offers a private resolution option. Here, a professional arbitrator can provide a binding resolution, which can be taken to court as a summary application and quickly converted into a judgment.
Self-described Toronto boy Soskin says he was motivated to start online arbitration service after witnessing a friend’s custody battle. The process proved to be both prohibitively expensive and a huge time commitment.
Disputes in the public forum tend not to be the ones that show up in court, Soskin said. Sometimes they are simply disagreements between roommates or complaints against businesses. The more serious cases tend to gravitate toward the private resolution side of the site.
When you’re going up against a big company with a complaint, court isn’t an option because the company’s pockets are so deep, says Carroll, who came to fame with his YouTube video complaint, “United Breaks Guitars.”
Launched earlier this month, Gripevine, allows customers to post a complaint that skips the front-line customer service people and lands in a manager’s inbox. The company is invited to respond and resolve the complaint in a public forum that sheds light on their customer service.
Gripevine gives people a way to make sure their complaint will be taken seriously and an incentive for the company to resolve the problem. A ratings system was recently introduced, allowing companies with good resolution records boast of their service.
Lengthy and expensive civil suits have been clogging up courts in both the U.S. and Canada for decades, pushing many of them to encourage Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) techniques. Soskin says some courts even oblige parties to attempt mediation before going to trial.
In Ontario, formal arbitration and mediation has existed for some time, but focuses on disputes involving more than the small claims court cut-off of $ 25,000, said arbitrator Douglas Cunningham, a former Associate Chief Justice of the Superior Court.
Cunningham doubts that there is a need for ADR when small claims court does such a good job resolving disputes quickly and cheaply.
“The effectiveness of the settlement conferences in the small claims court is such that there probably isn’t a need for a parallel path,” he said.
He estimates almost 50 per cent of the civil cases launched in Ontario are launched in the small claims court.
“There is not a lot of complex documentation,” he said, noting that the cases “usually have decisions rendered very quickly. If not that very day, within a very short period of time thereafter.”
If online resolutions don’t work, old fashioned courts can still be an option for those without means. In the Ontario Superior Court, where the small claims court resides, Pro Bono Law Ontario has a self-help law centre providing free legal advice for those involved in civil cases.