Although the courtroom is often thought of as the last bastion of antiquated working practices, leading edge computing will soon provide massive dispute-resolving capability for a fraction of today's price that will have huge benefits for business and the IT industry.
The ease of connectivity between users around the globe offers tremendous opportunities to build intelligent systems that can adapt to their users' requirements and can learn from experience.
However, there is a lack of awareness among business people of the full power and cost-effectiveness of ADR (Advanced dispute resolution) techniques in helping parties to resolve their disputes in a timely (and private) manner.
London is a leading centre for the settlement of international disputes, dealing with approximately 4,000 cases each year. In about 90% of those cases, at least one party is based outside the UK. The money disputed in these cases totals more than £40bn.
Despite the lack of experimentation by some, the use of online dispute resolution (ODR) is growing in such organizations as the London Court of International Arbitration (CIArb) and the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.
At present, the vast bulk of these cases arise from consumer online purchases and are by definition simple and easily managed.
For example, the CIArb has been offering ODR facilities for consumer disputes since 2001 and has seen exponential growth in the number of cases where ODR is used from the outset - from three applications in the first year to 200 in 2004.
During that same period more than 8,000 cases have been administered using at least some element of its ODR functionality. This year it has seen its first use of ODR for commercial disputes.
While the CIArb and others use ODR as a mechanism to support the human resolution of disputes, other ODR services have been established to effectively resolve cases themselves. Such systems offer a high degree of sophistication in negotiation and settlement skills, often relying upon artificial intelligence.
For example, SmartSettle.com uses mathematical algorithms to help find a resolution to disputes, creating what is frequently described as an 'automated negotiation tool'.
This maximizes the economic benefits to both parties by creating a low cost process. Squaretrade.com, attached to Ebay, is also using this technique and is approaching a million cases per annum.
As ODR gains the confidence of the litigant, the types of cases that are conducted will become more complex and lengthy and will often involve great volumes of 'electronic paper' and multiple parties from different jurisdictions.
New levels of computing capacity, with accompanying levels of service, will be required to support the demands of the global online litigant, whether they turn to traditional litigation or to ADR methods in order to resolve their disputes.
The ODR movement is at a critical stage in its development. Facilities and services must be substantially improved if lawyers around the world are to be persuaded of its virtues.
The same goes for other users, from multinational companies and government departments to internet shoppers. Even today, many would not think of turning to ADR or ODR as an alternative to traditional litigation.
If the investment in technology is made, then in 10 years' time the UK could be at the heart of a world of global dispute resolution, a world where people will be resolving millions of disputes online: Disputes arising in human resources problems; education; in relationships between government, the people and business; in e-commerce and e-trading; in community and workplace disputes; in business disputes with customers and suppliers; and, of course, 'big-ticket' global commercial disputes.
Jeremy Barnett is a practising barrister and chair of the Bar Council's IT panel.