In the right case, online dispute resolution is a useful tool

Online dispute resolution (ODR) is a beneficial tool in certain family law files, but – as with many technological advancements – it shouldn’t be overused, says Oakville family lawyer and mediator Cathryn Paul.

The online process was discussed in a recent report for Britain’s Civil Justice Council where a system called HM Online Court would engage facilitators who aren’t lawyers working online to settle low-value claims through automated negotiations, reports Law Times. The system would see online judges make a decision if parties can’t reach a settlement, says the article.

Taking dispute resolution online creates efficiencies, says the article, noting eBay is processing about 16 million claims a year with an online dispute resolution system.

In Ontario, the Ministry of the Attorney General is examining ODR’s use for a number of programs, reports Law Times. British Columbia, the first province to institute electronic filing in 2005, has become a trend-setter in online dispute resolution, says the article, noting the province plans to launch an online system dubbed the B.C. Civil Resolution Tribunal later this year.

In Paul’s mediation/arbitration practice, she says online tools play a large role in her daily routine.

“Online dispute resolution is basically any kind of dispute resolution using the Internet. Alot of the work we do in family mediation is through emails back and forth, which would be a form online dispute resolution,” she tells

Paul says that in some cases she uses an online program called Our Family Wizard to give her clients the ability to share information and communications with each other and with her.

“I can review the information and step in and give comments here and there as needed,” she says.

“With family law I see online dispute resolution as a useful tool as an adjunct to more traditional mediation processes.”

Working collaboratively on documents online or meeting with clients over Skype are other ways Paul incorporates the web into her practice.

But, she says, online processes should not be overused.

“A mediator has a responsibility to screen clients to determine if mediation is appropriate and it’s very hard to screen people online,” she says. “You don’t know what they’re saying; you can’t read facial expressions; you can’t create a rapport. That personal connection is important to screening. It’s really important to resolve these issues, but once that screening has been done, then absolutely there’s room for working with parties in many different ways to resolve their disputes.”

Paul says face-to-face may be best for certain parties, while others may not be able to be in the same room.

“Where I see more room for online dispute resolution is in more simple situation such as an annual review of child support, where there’s not all of the complexity and emotion as when people are initially separating,” she says. “In the beginning, there’s a whole bundle of issues that need to be dealt with that can be difficult in an online platform.”

Paul says if she’s worked with clients in the past and they need to review child support payment amounts, she’ll “absolutely” work with the couple online.

“It’s a time saver and it adds more flexibility,” she says. “They don’t have to miss time from work and it can be done on their own schedule. I could set out the issues and ask them to respond within a week, which gives them the time to reflect and consider a response rather than just reacting. It can lead to more healthy dialogue.”

When asked where she draws the line in terms of when working online isn’t appropriate, Paul says there’s no straight answer.

“Where that line is depends on each family’s dynamics, and it’s up to the mediator to make that call,” she says.

“Online dispute resolution gives us more tools. As mediators, we have to be flexible and work with a family’s resources and needs and the more tools we have to help them meet their goals, the better,” says Paul.

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