Ask An Expert: Colin Rule

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 ar