Online mediation is nothing new—some mediators have been taking their alternative dispute resolution to the internet since the late 1990s. While many people traditionally think of lawyers, judges and mediators as conducting duties primarily within physical law firms and courthouses, e-mediation is a popular tool for resolving conflicts between long-distance parties, saving time and money on travel. Today, as courthouses and law firms close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, e-mediation is ensuring that the wheels of justice don’t grind to a complete halt.
Moving mediation and other legal procedures online
Since COVID-19 is easily spread, every state in America has declared a public health emergency, necessitating the closure of public spaces where people gather—including courthouses and non-essential businesses. Cases that can’t be postponed are now being handled online; many courts are offering e-filing options and handling pre-trial conferences or other procedural matters entirely online.
For many lawyers, judges, clerks and courtroom staff, this is unprecedented. While there has been a steady push to move some proceedings online—after all, it significantly cuts down on travel time for legal professionals as well as parties and witnesses—the legal profession has always been slow to change. Now, thanks to COVID-19, many are finding that technology isn’t just a stopgap solution during the pandemic. It’s a viable tool that makes justice more accessible for everyone.
The hesitation to move legal procedures online doesn’t (entirely) stem from a Luddite-like wariness of technology. There are valid questions that lawyers, judges and mediators have been debating for years, often privacy and security-related. However, the pandemic has forced the profession’s hand, and many are experiencing just how convenient, safe and effective it can be. Even the American Bar Association Journal has compiled a guide to e-mediation and online dispute resolution, recognizing the necessity of continuing to work even when the future is uncertain.
Some mediation firms have reported an uptick in requests for online mediation since the pandemic spread to the United States. While many e-mediation requests are for cases already in progress, so as not to lose momentum, others are finding that new parties are seeking online mediation.
With the unprecedented economic crisis—including the inevitable wave of tenant evictions and foreclosures due to mass COVID-19 unemployment—e-mediation will continue to be key in protecting parties’ rights and solving disputes for months to come.
The lasting impact of e-mediation during COVID-19
Just as many businesses are quickly finding that it’s possible (and in many cases, convenient) to allow employees to work from home, the legal profession is expected to follow suit. Granted, not every proceeding will translate well to the internet, nor should it—in proceedings like jury trials, there’s simply no substitute for face-to-face communication.
However, as Forbes reports, although law has traditionally clung to brick-and-mortar, face-to-face proceedings and work environments, moving business online offers greater job satisfaction, enhanced productivity and even a more efficient use of company or firm resources. While the legal profession has been cracking under the strain of intense student debt, partnership models that don’t make sense in today’s world and the limitations of in-house counsel, the pandemic has illuminated a solution that’s been around for the last two to three decades.
E-mediation is just one part of the answer, but experts are holding it up as proof that online dispute resolution is not only safe, but effective. The work that e-mediators have done to pave the way will likely be reflected in enhanced access to online tools for the entire profession.
While the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in an extraordinary economic and health crisis for Americans, it may also be the key to moving a traditional and staid profession firmly into the 21st century—which will ultimately have a positive impact nationwide.