Online Dispute Resolution: Revolution in legal proceedings?

Online Dispute Resolution: Revolution in legal proceedings?

Before initiating any discussion on whether or not we need online dispute resolution as an alternate mechanism in legal proceedings we need to first find out why the need arises to better understand the overall structure and role of online dispute resolution as an alternate dispute resolution. As per the National Judicial Data Grid, over 5 crore cases are pending in India, out of which over 4.4 crore cases are pending at the District and Taluka levels, around 60 lakh cases are pending in the High Courts and more than 70,000 cases are pending at the apex court.

The pendency of these cases can be attributed to the unfulfilled vacancies in the judicial system of the country. Around 40% of seats are vacant in the High Courts across India, and 20 % in that of the lower judiciary or the subordinate courts. The total sanctioned strength of the judges in these courts also seems to be inadequate, leading to a heap of unresolved and unaddressed cases. In the backdrop of such a situation, there needs to be an alternate mechanism for imparting justice, not to mention, justice or judiciary being one of the irreplaceable pillars of a democracy.

As the name suggests Alternate Dispute Resolution, provides a substitute mechanism to the conventional, more precisely, the traditional methods of resolving disputes i.e. in courts of law. This mechanism not only helps in reducing the burden of litigations from courts but also delivers a more satisfying experience to the parties involved in the case. But what makes the experience so satisfying making it a better recourse over the traditional proceedings is that the parties involved have the liberty to voice their concerns unlike in the conventional court proceedings.

Section 89 of the Civil Procedure Code provides that if it appears to the court that there exist elements of settlement outside the court, then the court can formulate the terms of possible settlement and refer the same for Arbitration, Conciliation, Mediation or Lok Adalat. The Acts that deal with Alternate Dispute Resolution are the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, of 1996 and the Legal Services Authority Act, of 1987.

With the advent of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), in the space of Alternate Dispute Resolution, the legal landscape is experiencing a significant transformation. This technological revolution is recasting the conventional legal proceedings, proffering a more efficiently systematic and accessible means of resolving disputes.

India has long been infamous for its lengthy court proceedings, red-tapism, and geographical restrictions. In such a scenario, the interplay of technology and using certain technological mechanisms to help dispute resolution could greatly take the burden off the courts. India's digital transformation, expedited by aspiring initiatives like Digital India, has laid down a robust technological footing for the implementation of ODR platforms. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, NITI Ayog in anticipation of a surge in disputes, proposed the government unveil an Online Dispute Resolution framework for disputes below a certain monetary level

The Information Technology Act, of 2000, and subsequent amendments provide legal recognition to electronic documents and facilitate the use of technology in legal processes, including dispute resolution. Now, we'll explore and unfold the various aspects of Online Dispute Resolution as a form of ADR, its advantages, and its' potential impact.

The ODR process is a lot less time-consuming than the traditional dispute resolution process. It is in every way a more cost-effective method, and a less complicated procedure, free from the technicalities of the traditional system. It prevents further conflict thereby maintaining good relations among the involved parties. Furthermore, ODR allows the parties to rise above and go beyond geographical barriers through the integration of Information and Communication Technology in the justice system, making it accessible to individuals all across the country. This dimension of inclusivity is peculiarly crucial in a diverse nation like India. India's traditional legal proceedings already have a bad reputation for their time-consuming and unaffordable nature. Herein, ODR offers a more speedy and economical alternative, reducing the burden on both litigators and the legal system. ODR platforms provide pliability in terms of organizing hearings and presenting evidence, obliging the diverse needs, plans and schedules of the parties involved. It also eliminates any form of unconscious bias or prejudice against any of the parties involved

Many times, ODR is confused with Virtual Courts, largely because of the absence of any fixed definition of ODR. A key element of ODR is that there should be usage of Information and Communication in the resolution of the dispute which can range from a simple to a complex tool. It may vary from simple audio-visual tools to smart negotiation tools or automated dispute resolution tools through Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning etc.

For the success of ODR in a country like India, there is a dire need for increasing access to digital technology and infrastructure including digital literacy across different geographies, genders and age groups. The government has to ensure and enforce confidence-building measures directed towards both the mechanism of ODR and its outcomes. The challenges vary from the infrastructural level to the behavioural level which can be addressed by generating awareness and through campaigns.

The integration of ODR into the Indian legal system can prevent a lack of cases from entering unnecessarily into the courts providing the commonest of the common people an alternative over the traditional route. It will be a significant step towards embracing technology and laying a foundation for future generations. If the government adopts ODR, it will further boost the confidence of the common citizenry, enabling an ordinary litigator to consider ODR as the first stop to resolve disputes. Furthermore, ODR is a kind of model if adopted will lead to a significant decrease in cases, as its framework is more about dispute avoidance through smart negotiation and artificial intelligence. In the context of India, ODR seems a promising venture for dispute resolution in India, not just in present but in the future as well.