Pandemic Possibilities: Current Research on Technology and Dispute Resolution

Photo of the conference program showing an aerial view of Newcastle Australia

The 9th Australasian Dispute Resolution Research Network Roundtable, held this year in conjunction with the Civil Justice Research and Teaching Conference, was held on 1-2 February and hosted by the University of Newcastle Law School.

Every year the Roundtable provides a unique perspective on the ‘state of the art’ in dispute resolution research – and this year was no exception. For the benefit of those who could not attend, this post draws insights from one section of the many conference papers – those focussed on the technological change that has been hastened by COVID-19.

The Covid19 pandemic required courts, tribunals and dispute resolution providers to rapidly ‘pivot’ to keep providing services during the pandemic. As Dr Joe McIntyre observed in his paper,

The last five years have seen significant developments in the use of digital justice technology globally. Australia has, in contrast, been relatively slow moving in embracing the use of such technologies to improve the efficiency and accessibility of its courts. The sudden shutdown required to respond to the 2020 global pandemic forced jurisdictions around the country to rapidly cobble together technological solutions to allow emergency access to the courts to continue…

Joe’s paper highlighted what he sees as a potential upside of the pandemic-driven technology shift – that we might be might be willing to shift our mindset to embrace a broader conception of the role of a court. His paper also highlighted some of the practical work he’s been doing on an online mechanism for resolution of tenancy bond disputes.

The Roundtable provided early insights into some of the excellent empirical work undertaken during 2020 on the disruption and innovation seen internationally in the civil justice sphere.

The Roundtable provided early insights into some of the excellent empirical work undertaken during 2020 on the disruption and innovation seen internationally in the civil justice sphere.

Associate Professor Genevieve Grant undertook a study of 37 lawyers about their experiences of hearings undertaken both online and by phone. Her findings reflected a wide range of experiences and both the advantages and disadvantages of hearings at a distance.

In New Zealand, Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin has been looking – both pre- and post- pandemic at the telephone mediation of rental disputes. While this research was already important in 2019, it has acquired new urgency during 2020 as telephone mediation has become more widespread. While the ‘low tech’ solution of telephone can make it accessible for those not able to engage with video technology like zoom, the medium presents its own unique challenges.

Tayne Redman, is a lawyer at the Accessible Justice Project, which is an organisation established bythe University of Adelaide and law firm Lipman Karas – and which operates as a not-for-profit law firm. Tayne’s presentation highlighted the intense community demand for innovative and cost-effective delivery of legal services – now more than ever for the ‘missing middle’ who can neither afford legal advice nor are eligible to receive legal aid.

My own research, currently still at the stage of data analysis, unintentionally examines the impact of covid on innovation in law firms and legal education. Like many researchers, my team collected data during 2020, which meant that participants’ thoughts were naturally attuned to the impact of the pandemic. That study, designed to understand how legal actors conceptualise and respond to ‘innovation’ has highlighted the beneficial effect that a rapidly emergent situation can have on innovation. Not only is the speed of innovation, by necessity, sped up, the need for rapid change can dampen the impact of path dependency and lessen resistance to change.

What, then, is the way forward for the legal profession, legal institutions, lawyers and academic in this new environment? I think it’s summed up beautifully by one of my interviewees, the Dean of a large law school:

It’s important to consider the relationship between research and its contribution and its community – it’s at its best when there’s mutual understanding. We have brought a sense of mutual understanding much more clearly back into the frame as a result of COVID-19.

We need to focus on what communities and businesses need, and to design solutions that meet those needs. We need to keep building new and innovative partnerships between the academic sector, the public sector and the private sector, and bring lots of voices into the conversation. We also need to carefully evaluate solutions that have been implemented quickly, before allowing temporary fixes to become more permanent. It is reassuring that there is so much important research from the Network continuing in 2021.

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