On-line dispute resolution delivers aid within 72 hours

The Internet allows anywhere, anytime transactions. And now, according to Teri Kirk, businesses and individuals can also resolve their legal conflicts on-line – from any distance or jurisdiction.

Toronto-based NovaForum has launched an on-line commercial dispute resolution service offering enterprises a way to resolve legal disputes on the Web, according to Kirk, president and CEO of NovaForum.

NovaForum utilizes the services of qualified Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) professionals so that on-line buyers and sellers can resolve commercial contractual disputes, such as billing, order fulfilment, product or service quality, content ownership and breaches of privacy or security policies.

Businesses which subscribe to the service can resolve conflicts through an on-line e-mediator who uses a choice of e-mail, voice or video conferencing or secure on-line chat meetings to resolve the dispute.

“Like any business, you have to respond to a problem or demand in the marketplace and the demand that we saw was that there was a big disconnect between the needs of on-line businesses that work and transact quickly,” she said.

According to chief innovation officer at NovaForum, Cheryl Conanz, many businesses and consumers have overwhelmingly expressed their dissatisfaction with the traditional court system.

“The way the world operates today, people are very mobile,” Conanz said. “Unfortunately, our traditional justice system is not.”

Kirk said that market pressure is driving the demand for on-line dispute resolution.

“As more than $3 trillion in global economic activity is transferred to the World Wide Web, a fast borderless on-line system for the resolution of e-channel disputes is required. Government agencies, consumer groups and industry associations are seeking assurances that e-businesses provide on-line dispute resolution services to ensure consumers have a quick and affordable way to resolve their on-line disputes,” Kirk said.

“NovaForum is committed to working with its justice partners to build a positive model for this new frontier.”

Conanz explained NovaForum’s service delivers a subscription and a seal to companies selling products on-line.

According to the NovaForum Web site (www.novaforum.com), the seal certifies that the company subscribes to an on-line dispute resolution service that provides third-party resolution of commercial and other complaints.

Subscribers purchase an annual subscription package, which incorporates the following features: case management of all resolutions, password access to a subscribers-only area containing dispute avoidance services and related information, use of a certification mark – the NovaForum seal – which may be placed on the subscriber’s Web site to indicate the availability of the service to its customer’s other contractual parties, a listing in the NovaForum subscriber directory, and an optional link from the NovaForum site to the subscriber’s site.

“NovaForum doesn’t provide the customer service, so we’re not the phone-up dial place to complain that your refrigerator doesn’t work,” Conanz said. “Once the parties, that is the subscribers or their client, have exhausted that internal complaint customer service mechanism, before they take their ultimate step (which is law suit in court) they have agreed by subscribing to our program to go through our steps.”

One lawyer said laws regarding on-line transactions are still murky for most consumers.

“On the Internet, jurisdictional conflicts confound traditional rules about buyers’ and sellers’ rights,” said Roger Tasse, former Deputy Minister of Justice of Canada and now a partner at Ottawa-based Gowling, Strathy & Henderson. “To ensure customer confidence in on-line trading, e-businesses will need to adopt global standards of practice, including accessible, affordable, independent redress mechanisms for disputes.”

Gillian Hadfield, professor of Law at the University of Toronto, pointed out that although this method of resolving disputes drastically reduces the cost, the 72-hour guarantee isn’t very reassuring.

“That means I don’t have time to get testimony from the guy who’s off in northern DC on a supply trip,” Hadfield said.

Toronto commercial litigation lawyer Derrick Fulton said lawyers have utilized ADR techniques for thousands of years. Fulton has just completed his master’s course in ADR.

“It’s kind of odd that it’s sort of becoming a fad,” Fulton said. “Everyone’s sort of jumping on the ADR wagon, when ADR has been around in other forms for tens of thousands of years.”

Fulton said that 98 per cent of disputes that are commenced by litigation settle without court involvement. Fulton’s only caution with resolving on-line is the lack of personal contact.

“The Web is turning out a bunch of geeks, really. People aren’t talking to each other anymore. They’re using all these other alternative modes of communication,” Fulton said. “What the hell happened to just getting in a room and having it out? Nothing beats that.”