by Rashika Narain and Smriti Parsheera.
Online dispute resolution (ODR) refers to the use of electronic communications and other information and communication technology for dispute resolution (UNCITRAL, 2016). Its objective being to bring the gains of efficiency, reach, cost-effectiveness, and convenience that technology has brought to so many sectors into the domains of redress, resolution and justice delivery. Some of the use cases of ODR include internal dispute management systems of businesses, electronic forms of alternative dispute resolution (often referred to as e-ADR), and operation of online courts.
India has seen a spate of recent developments in this space. There has been a rise in the number of ODR startups and businesses that are willing to experiment with ODR as an alternative to the traditional forms of dispute resolution. On the institutional side, COVID-19 induced pressures forced courts and Lok Adalats to switch to an online mode, the Reserve Bank of India directed payment systems operators to adopt ODR for failed payment disputes and the NITI Aayog put out a draft ODR Policy Plan.
Collectively, these developments signal the intersection of the problem, policy and politics streams to create a window of opportunity (Kingdon, 2013) for ODR in India. However, alongside the many benefits and opportunities of ODR lie a few areas of caution. First, the push toward ODR should account for the country’s narrowing yet persistent digital divide. ODR solutions must, therefore, be designed in a manner that avoids extending digital exclusions into the domains of justice delivery and redress. Second, the immediate focus needs to be on building trust in the ODR sector though an emphasis on competence, accountability, equity, and transparency. These priorities should emerge from within the ODR ecosystem rather than being imposed through external forces. Lastly, the ecosystem should remain wary of any kind of central planning, particularly in terms of technical design. While controlled technical standardisation may seem attractive for initial adoption, it could result in the locking in of specific technologies and standards in the long run.
In this article we describe the meaning and evolution of ODR, explain the state of adoption in India, and introduce the Handbook on Online Dispute Resolution (ODR Handbook, 2021) created by a group of nine institutions that was recently launched by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud at a virtual event. The Handbook serves as an invitation to businesses to adopt and mainstream ODR solutions in India. While sharing the optimism generated by recent advancements in this space, we emphasise certain areas of caution and desirable practices for ODR to succeed beyond the current window of opportunity.
What is ODR?
ODR refers to the use of technology for enabling more accessible and efficient dispute resolution. Its genesis is often traced to the growth of Internet-based businesses and the resulting search for mechanisms to deal with online disputes and their accompanying jurisdictional uncertainties (Katsh, 2012). eBay and its payments arm PayPal are recognised to be among the early adopters of tech-enabled solutions for resolving cases arising on their platform (Rule, 2008). Similar tech-mediated systems for grievance redress are now commonplace across online businesses. Examples include the order returns management policies of e-commerce companies, feedback mechanisms of ride hailing companies and content reporting systems of social media firms. Beyond grievance management, e-ADR processes like mediation and arbitration are another popular use case.
The factors responsible for the growth of ODR include its efficiency, reach, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to improve business intelligence through data about dispute management. The possibility of asynchronous communication in many ODR models, which allows parties to respond at their own convenience, is another significant draw. Globally, ODR’s reach has expanded to a range of sectors, such as property matters, family settlements, domain name disputes and financial matters (Kinhal et al, 2020). Further, tech solutions have also permeated into different layers of the dispute management process. For instance, negotiation tools like Cybersettle guide parties in making financial settlement bids and communication tools like Our Family Wizard are being used by courts to monitor parental custody settlements.
There are also many cases of institutional adoption of ODR in the public justice delivery system. Notable examples include Canada’s British Columbia Civil Resolution Tribunal that uses ODR to handle condominium property claims, small claims, and motor vehicle injury cases, Hong Kong’s ODR scheme for COVID-19 related cases, Mexico’s Concilianet platform for consumer dispute resolution, and various small value claims courts in the United States (NITI Aayog, 2020).
State of play in India
The ODR industry in India has seen significant movement in the last few years although it still remains in the early stages of development. As per the ODR Handbook, the number of ODR start-ups has grown from 3 in 2018 to 13 by mid 2020. This includes operators like Presolv360, Centre for Online Resolution of Disputes (CORD) and SAMA that are directly involved in delivering online arbitration and mediation services as well as platforms like CREK ODR and Resolve Disputes Online that specialise in offering technology solutions to others.
A pilot project initiated by ICICI Bank in collaboration with SAMA presents one of the early examples of ODR adoption in India. As per the ODR Handbook, this mechanism was used for the resolution of 200 loan repayment related disputes before the introduction of the COVID-19 related loan moratorium. This reportedly led to significant cost and time savings for the bank — its resolution effort went down from six person-days per case to only half a day (ODR Handbook, p. 61). In another example, SAMA recently organised an e-conciliation camp, called Suljhav Manch, which saw participation from companies like Udaan, Snapdeal and ICICI Housing Finance. An aggregate of over 8,000 loan and customer disputes were recorded for online resolution, of which 1,860 disputes have already been settled.
The COVID-19 situation has also created an impetus for institutional adoption through online filings, electronic court hearings and organisation of e-Lok Adalats in several states (Nair, 2020). Further, in line with RBI’s directions for adoption of ODR by payment operators, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) recently went live with its online resolution system for BHIM UPI app users. Others in the payment space are expected to shortly follow suit. The Income Tax Department has also introduced a Faceless Assessment Scheme that is meant to offer greater convenience and transparency in the assessment process.
In another interesting development, last year, the Supreme Court declared that the sole appointment of an arbitrator by a party interested in the dispute would be unlawful, even if previously agreed by the parties (Mehta et al, 2020). This may shift the standard practice of consumer facing companies appointing arbitrators en masse for low value, high volume disputes in favour of the incorporation of ODR clauses in commercial agreements.
Some areas of caution
While the developments above are cited as victories for ODR, the long term trajectory of tech-enabled dispute resolution will depend on a number of factors. First, there is the reality of India’s digital divide, which spans across issues of connectivity, device ownership, digital literacy and skills, and social norms. A combination of these factors ends up generating varying levels of digital adoption across demographic groups. While sectors such as digital payments and e-commerce, which cater to an already digital population, are more conducive for ODR adoption, a broader policy push towards mandatory ODR could end up disenfranchising several sections of the population. For instance, the Tax Department’s faceless assessment scheme has drawn criticism for the lack of opportunity for individuals to explain their case in person and limitations in technical skills and infrastructural facilities required to comply with the online processes (Chatterji, 2020).
Possible ways to minimise the harms of digital exclusion include keeping ODR adoption voluntary in most circumstances, investing in training and capacity building of intended users, and allowing them to opt for a combination of online and offline interactions. The emergence of a hybrid model where an intermediary can step in to facilitate the engagement between the parities and the technological requirements of the ODR system is another interesting solution. This is illustrated in the work being done by the Aajeevika Bureau to help migrant workers claim unpaid compensation from employers using an ODR process (ODR Handbook, p. 71-72).
Second, there is also the question of how to build trust in the ODR ecosystem in order to facilitate its adoption by businesses and individuals. There are some who argue that a certain level of government intervention and control is a necessary part of trust building (Schluz, 2004) while others have discussed interventions such as increasing knowledge about the process, certification of neutrals, and the existence of a code of ethics as mechanisms to bolster trust (Abedi et al, 2019). This points to the need for a discussion on the role of voluntary codes of conduct in building trust in ODR systems. We discuss this in the next section.
The third area of caution would be to avoid the creation of monolithic technical architectures in the ODR space. All too often in India, there is a temptation to create a state-mandated monopoly in a field, with government controlled technological standards (e.g. the Unified Payments Interface (UPI)) and a government controlled monopoly vendor (e.g. the NPCI). The NITI Aayog’s draft report suggests a similar path for the ODR sector. It makes a case for the government’s role in developing a ‘scalable platform using technology’ that will allow for the development of private sector services relying on government-led free and open source software (NITI Aayog, 2020, p. 96-97).
This is a less efficient path for several reasons. Government-mandated engineering designs tend to stagnate over time, and fall out of touch with the requirements of the people and of the technological possibilities. India is highly heterogeneous, and even if an efficient state-run planning process is able to emerge with a sound design for a modal use case, that may only cover a small fraction of the situations in the field. Further, despite being labeled as ‘open’, such solutions are often designed in a closed environment, with consultations being used as a tool for information dissemination rather than technical collaboration.
Providers and adopters of ODR have the incentives to understand opportunities, customer needs, and figure out innovative solutions. It would, therefore, be more efficient to allow a diverse set of actors to develop technology, protocols and standards in this space. Notably, ODR initiatives would also be bound by existing legal frameworks, such as the rights to data access and portability proposed under the draft Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 and the safeguards available under competition law. Accordingly, government-backed technical standards are neither the only, nor the most efficient, path to achieving data access, portability, interoperability, and empowerment in this field.
A voluntary code for the ODR ecosystem
While resisting the push for government-backed standards and protocols, we recognise that a sound governance framework could be one of the ways to engender trust in the ODR ecosystem. There are several examples of non-binding ODR principles that have emerged globally. For instance, the International Council for Online Dispute Resolution (ICODR) is a US-based non profit that has put out a set of open standards on ODR. This includes requirements that the ODR programs must be accessible, accountable, competent, confidential, equal, neutral and impartial, legal, secure and transparent. Similar standards and guidelines have also been put out by other institutions such as the UNCITRAL’s Technical Notes on ODR and the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution’s Ethical Principles for ODR. The overlap in the principles outlined in these documents indicates a convergence of ideas on the basic requirements of a well functioning ODR system. Many ODR providers in India have also voluntarily adopted different international standards.
Given the current stage of development of India’s ODR system, having mandatory standards or strict legal requirements could impede innovation and create entry barriers (ODR Handbook, p.51). However, this does not preclude the adoption of voluntary codes of conduct that are developed and operationalised by ODR players themselves. This could be done by having a basic set of good practices (see table below for the principles suggested in the ODR Handbook) that may be agreed to among the service providers in an open, inclusive and collaborative manner. Further, voluntary mechanisms such as peer review, ratings and accreditations can be used to verify the extent to which each platform is complying with these principles.
|Accessibility||Ensuring ODR platforms can be used across devices and by different demographic groups, accounting for the diversity of Indian languages and the ability to engage with technology.|
|Competence and neutrality||Neutrals should possess substantive knowledge and understanding of processes and must be free of conflicts of interest.|
|Accountability and fairness||Adherence to due process standards. Remain mindful of the possibility of unequal bargaining powers between parties.|
|Information and transparency||Proactive disclosure of conflict of interest, risks, and benefits to enable informed consent. Anonymised data on ODR trends and statistics can help in building trust.|
|Confidentiality and robust data security||Adherence to data protection norms, including safe storage and established protocols to deal with breaches, cyber attacks, and disasters.|
Besides such voluntary adoption, providers of e-ADR are also bound by the existing laws and principles applicable to ADR processes. However, in many cases, these principles might need to be reframed to account for the impact of technology on ADR processes and the responsibility of ODR platforms and third parties neutrals conducing the mediation or arbitration processes (Rainey, 2014). For instance, use of the online medium might impose additional requirements of how confidentiality in mediation needs to be enforced in practice. This is because the mediator’s ability to ensure confidentiality in ODR depends both on their own conduct as well as the design of the ODR platform. The ODR principle for confidentiality must, therefore, account for appropriate technical standards to ensure that the information transmitted on the platform remains confidential and secure. The practitioner also bears the responsibility to convey the risks of online communications to the parties (Rainey, 2014).
Developments in the past year or two have opened a window of opportunity for the adoption of ODR systems in India. As policymakers and private actors start warming up to the benefits of tech-enabled dispute resolution, the immediate goal should be to demonstrate capacity and build trust in ODR systems. This includes the realisation that not all sectors and user groups are equally equipped to immediately transition to ODR. Any kind of mandatory adoption should, therefore, be carefully considered so as to avoid extending digital exclusions into the domains of justice delivery and redress. An emphasis on hybrid models of ODR, both in terms of the choice between offline and online interactions and emergence of intermediaries who can help users in bridging the technological gap, would be useful.
Creating digital trust requires a framework that incorporates accountability, equity, ethics and auditability in its functioning. Thus, another priority at this stage should be to pursue the adoption of a voluntary code of conduct that is conducive to building trust in the ecosystem. Such a code of conduct should emerge, and be implemented, from within the ODR ecosystem rather than being enforced through State coercion. In addition to concerns of stifling innovation through over-regulation, it is also important to avoid excessive central planning in the technical design of ODR systems. This could result in the locking in of specific technologies and standards, hampering the long term prospects of the ODR sector.
Chatterji, 2020: B.M. Chatterji, Faceless Assessment: Concerns & Recommendations for Seamless Digital Integration, Tax Guru, 28 November 2020.
Katsh, 2012: Ethan Katsh, ODR: A Look at History, Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Ethan Katsh & Daniel Rainey (Eds.), Eleven International Publishing, 2012.
Kelkar & Shah, 2019: Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah, In service of the republic: The art and science of economic policy, Penguin Allen Lane, 2019.
Kingdon, 2013: John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies. 2nd ed., Pearson, 2013.
Kinhal et al, 2020: Deepika Kinhal, Tarika Jain, Vaidehi Misra & Aditya Ranjan, ODR: The Future of Dispute Resolution in India, Vidhi Cenre for Legal Policy, July 2020.
Lederer, 2018: Nadine Lederer, The UNCITRAL Technical Notes on Online Dispute Resolution – Paper Tiger or Game Changer?, Kluwer Arbitration Blog, January 2018.
Mehta et al, 2020: Ankoosh Mehta, Maitrayi Jain & Anushka Shah, SC refuses unilateral appointment of single arbitrator, Indian Corporate Law, A Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas Blog, May 2020.
Nair, 2020: Ria Nair, E-Lok Adalats In India, August, 2020.
NITI Aayog, 2020: The NITI Aayog Expert Committee on ODR, Designing the Future of Dispute Resolution: The ODR Policy Plan for India, October, 2020.
ODR Handbook, 2021: NITI Aayog, Agami, Omidyar Network India, Ashoka, ICICI Bank, Trilegal, Dalberg, Dvara Research, NIPFP and Cracker & Rush, Online Dispute Resolution: Shifting from Disputes to Resolutions, April, 2021.
Rainey, 2014: Daniel Rainey, Third-Party Ethics in the Age of the Fourth Party, 2014.
Rule, 2008: Colin Rule, Making Peace on eBay: Resolving Disputes in the World’s Largest Marketplace, ACResolution Magazine, Fall 2008.
Schluz 2004: Thomas Schulz, Does Online Dispute Resolution Need Governmental Intervention – The Case for Architectures of Control and Trust, 6 N.C.J.L. & Tech. 71 (2004).
UNCITRAL, 2016: UNCITRAL Technical Notes on Online Dispute Resolution, 2016.
Rashika Narain is lawyer and mediator associated with SAMA and the Centre for Mediation and Arbitration, Mumbai. Smriti Parsheera is a Fellow with the CyberBRICS Project and was previously a researcher with the National Institute of Public Finance & Policy (NIPFP). NIPFP was one of the contributors to the ODR Handbook. The authors would like to thank Vimal Balasubramaniam, Keerthana Medarametla, Renuka Sane and Ajay Shah for valuable inputs.
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