Colin Rule, Vice President of Online Dispute Resolution at Tyler Technologies, in Silicon Valley, discusses education, technology and providing better access to justice online.
When did you first become interested in ODR?
I am co-founder and COO of an Online Dispute Resolution service provider in Silicon Valley called Modria, which was recently acquired by Tyler Technologies. From 2003-2011, I was the first Director of Online Dispute Resolution at eBay/PayPal. I have been in the dispute resolution field since 1992, and I worked at the National Institute for Dispute Resolution (now ACR), the Consensus Building Institute, and Mediate.com, before founding one of the first ODR companies, onlineresolution.com, in 1999.
I always loved technology (I ran a dial-up bulletin board out of my bedroom when I was 11) and I became passionate about dispute resolution when I first got trained in college. It made sense to me that I’d make my career at the point where dispute resolution and technology overlap.
How do you think technology will impact dispute resolution over the next decade?
I just co-wrote a book about this – The New Handshake: Online Dispute Resolution and the Future of Consumer Protection. The internet has created a new kind of dispute, the online-only dispute, that is growing rapidly; we estimate there will be more than a billion of those disputes in 2017, and they’re growing at more than 10% a year. These high volume, low value, cross-jurisdictional cases require a new redress system that works the way the internet works. They also require software-facilitated resolution flows, because the economics don’t work to have humans handle such a volume manually.
Technology is enabling individual citizens and consumers to cross borders to a degree we’ve never seen before, so we need to use technology to build a new justice system that can scale appropriately. Every human society has built systems to ensure access to fast and fair resolutions when disagreements arise. Over the next ten years, we’re going to need to build a system like that for the new online society we’re building (and rapidly moving into).
Do you think ODR could improve access to justice?
I believe ODR is the biggest opportunity to expand access to justice in the last 100 years. We have a crisis in the legal system. Pro-se, self-represented litigants, many of whom can’t afford representation, are trying to navigate the courts on their own, and they’re not getting good outcomes. Civil case filings are falling even though transaction volume continues to grow, largely because citizens are so reluctant to engage the justice system.
Legal service bureaus, tasked with servicing low income constituents, are overwhelmed by demand, and they routinely turn away more than 50% of the people who need help. Courts are feeling the pinch as well as their budgets are cut; in California, where I live, the courts have lost more than USD 600 million in funding in the last eight years, and those cuts are not going to be restored any time soon.
ODR offers the promise of easily accessible redress through computers, tablets, and mobile phones. Complainants can educate themselves about the resolution process and their rights, and then negotiate directly with the respondent, get the assistance of a mediator, or get an efficient evaluative outcome. I believe in 20 years most civil cases will be resolved online through ODR.
Is ODR limited to a particular type of dispute?
It used to be accepted as an article of faith in the ODR community that ODR was a better fit with online disputes (e.g. disputes that arise online between two people who have never met in person) and with disputes that are more transactional in nature (e.g. a purchase of a good or service between two people without a close personal relationship).
It is true that the growth of ODR in the late 1990s and early 2000s was in these areas. But now technology has become much more widely accepted, and as a result we use computer mediated communication for many of our most intimate interactions. If we find our spouse online, why wouldn’t we handle our divorce online as well? Eventually it won’t feel strange to resolve emotional, in person disagreements through technology. In fact, it will feel strange to not use technology to resolve them.
Are certain countries leading the way?
Certain countries are on the leading edge of technology and legal services. I put Singapore in that category, along with The Netherlands and the United Kingdom. British Columbia in Canada has been quite visionary, though the rest of Canada has lagged behind BC’s lead.
The US innovates quickly, but only when there is profit potential. I think the judiciary has moved slowly to date but is on the cusp of making rapid progress. China and India are definitely interested as well, but the scope of the challenge is daunting. Brazil is moving aggressively toward ODR, and Australia and New Zealand also seem close to a breakthrough.
What are the main challenges for ODR?
Ethical standards are a crucial challenge. We just held a meeting at Stanford Law School to talk about key ethical principles for ODR, both for individual neutrals and for systems designers. There is also a good question about how the field should govern itself, and I think the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution is planning some initiatives in that area.
This will be a key topic of an upcoming ODR Conference in Paris next week. If ODR is really about to see a significant expansion, then we need to put the frameworks in place now to ensure the growth happens in a way that aligns to the ethical values of the ADR field.
What role can legal education play in triggering a change in the culture and practice of dispute resolution?
Law schools and dispute resolution graduate programmes have an essential role to play in educating the next generation of ODR innovators. Too many academic programmes focus on the way things have worked for the last few decades as opposed to thinking about how things are likely to develop in the next few decades. We need our new graduates to be aware of ODR tools and techniques, and to have ODR in their box of tools, so that they can innovate and build services relevant to the consumers of today and tomorrow.
Every mediation and negotiation class should include online simulations and readings to introduce the unique challenges of ODR. ODR isn’t some interesting sideline of ADR – I would argue it is the future of ADR. Educating new dispute resolution practitioners without showing them where ADR is going is not only misguided, it is irresponsible.
Colin will be speaking at the upcoming Florence Global Pound Conference event on 9 June and the Equal Access to Information & Justice – Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) 2017 Conference in Paris on 12-13 June.
Interviewed by Natasha Mellersh.
Colin Rule is the Vice President of Online Dispute Resolution at Tyler Technologies. In 2011 he co-founded Modria.com, an ODR provider based in Silicon Valley, which was acquired by Tyler Technologies in May 2017. From 2003 to 2011 Colin was Director of Online Dispute Resolution for eBay and PayPal. He is the co-author of “The New Handshake: Online Dispute Resolution and the Future of Consumer Protection (2017) and author of Online Dispute Resolution for Business (2002)”.