Can Online Mediation Work?

You can do some weird things online: there is a site, for instance, that allows you to buy and sell souls. If you need some cash and don’t mind eternal damnation, you might make a few bucks. On the buyer side, you have some pretty good options: Henry Kissinger’s soul is up for bid, as is Bill Gates’. Online, you can launch a career on YouTube, become a wedding officiant, rent a grandmother, husband, family, or puppy, or buy an SU-100 Soviet tank destroyer. Online mediation is tame by comparison. Tame, but is it effective?

It can be, but online mediation faces the same problem as its in-person counterpart: you’ve got to get both parties to the table, or to the computer. If the only thing keeping parties from mediating was physical location or a related logistical concern, then online mediation could be an ideal solution. I would use it – but the thing is, I’ve never come across a situation like that.

With workplace conflicts, for instance, coworkers typically live in close proximity and they work in the same place. Geography is not the obstacle. Now, not all coworkers are in the same locale – but we tend to get along with those coworkers just fine, especially if we have little to do with each other!

A case could be made for mediating disputes online within international businesses. But, again, there’s a fly in that ointment. If it’s a large international company, they presumably have the resources to meet face-to-face.

What this online system might be more useful for is arbitration and out-of-court adjudication. The parties agree that they’re not going to court, hire an arbitrator, and define the rules (for example, they may use the American Bar Association’s guidelines for arbitration or the Arbitration Act if we are in Ontario). If they do it online, the benefits include:

  • Shortening the process – law suits can take years
  • Selecting an Arbitrator that both parties respect and who has specific expertise in the subject matter in dispute
  • Eliminating complex, convoluted rules and procedures that can be abused in court cases

If the real goal is to settle the issue or have it adjudicated, arbitration is the way to go, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t do it online. You just swap out the mediator for a judge or arbitrator, as the case may be. I participate in arbitrations conducted by telephone frequently.

If both parties agree to online mediation, then it can work. But that’s exactly the difficulty this model faces. Geography and logistics are not what keep people from mediating; online mediation provides a solution, yes, but it’s not the solution to the greatest challenge faced by mediation.

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