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Online dispute resolution: the future for family law?

The concept of online dispute resolution (“ODR”) has gathered momentum over the past few years and now the civil justice council calls for ministers to back new legislation to introduce “Her Majesty's Online Court”. The report, written by Professor Richard Susskind, the Lord Chief Justice’s IT Adviser at the request of the Civil Justice Council, draws on the success of eBay and PayPal, with their resolution centres dealing with over 50 million buyer/seller disputes each year.

These and similar examples are used to support the proposed three tier process which will see cases evaluated interactively and negotiated online using facilitators. If the negotiations fail, a legally qualified judge will adjudicate on electronic submissions. The attraction for certain cases is clear particularly for small claims for whom the legal system is disproportionately expensive and time consuming.

But could the Online Court be used in divorce proceedings and financial remedy applications?

Quick, impartial and efficient, ODR certainly looks like a great proposition. Going to court is stressful and costly for everyone involved and it’s not hard to see why the virtual dispute resolution model has so much support.

It has been suggested that separating families could also benefit from the system, and if assessed as ‘suitable’ ODR could be used to determine the case. The question is whether the process is suitable for separating families as the reality of divorce is very different to that of small high volume retail transactional disputes.

Keystone’s family expert Zoë Bloom, suggests that for ODR to be successful for family and divorce issues, more work is needed on the Law Commissioners Report from February 2014 which advises the Government to introduce a formula to assess the correct division of assets following separation.

“It would be fantastic if something like this could work. However, it is difficult to see comparisons between civil cases of value under £25,000 which the ICJC think the system would be suitable for and most family cases. Even the most standard cases tend to have property with value well in excess of £25,000 because we are dealing with life-time acquired wealth of two people. Of course, if we were to move towards a standardised formula for dividing assets, then this sort of system could work incredibly well - particularly for those of middling wealth, where the cost of disputes arising from separation tend to be disproportionate.”

Divorce processes are continuously being modernised with one goal in mind – to become less of a burden for families and particularly children. With the growing use of modern technology, there is no doubt that ODR could revolutionise divorce procedures…But there’s still a way to go…

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.

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