In Cyberspace, the Gavel Falls on Minor Disputes

Complete with arbitrators and mediators who range from retired small-town police officers to graduates of Harvard Law School, the newly launched website eQuibbly.com takes the legal system online.

The founder and current president, a lawyer named Lance Soskin, was inspired to create the website when he witnessed the failings of the judicial court system. He completed his J.D. and MBA degrees at Osgood Hall Law School and worked with the law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt as an attorney.

Soskin was inspired to create eQuibbly by a friend’s custody battle for her son. Although she was in the top 20 percent of income earners, it was still too expensive for her to fight a protracted battle in court.

“My friend’s lawyer told her that going on trial would cost between $30,000 and $50,000,” Soskin said. “I kept thinking, ‘If she can’t afford it, how does the other 75 percent of the population afford it?’”

In one of his blog posts on eQuibbly, Soskin pointed to the difficulty of contesting a traffic ticket fine to highlight flaws of the court system.

“The only reason I can fathom for it is that the government wants to make it as difficult as possible to refuse to pay a fine. It is a cash grab,” he said. The more difficult it is for people to request a court date, the less likely they are to defend themselves.”

Online dispute resolution services have been around since the 90s. One of the first was created by eBay; the sheer number of disputes over online purchases made on its site led the makers of eBay to develop an online dispute resolution system with the University of Massachusetts in 1999. That service is still embedded on its site under the name SquareTrade.

eQuibbly is different, however. For starters, it’s a standalone service, designed to be used for all conflicts, not just those related to a particular website or store.

“People post all types of disputes on eQuibbly,” Soskin said. “From the more superficial arguments between family, friends and roommates, to the more serious disputes dealing with visitation issues between ex-spouses, business disputes, a homophobic college roommate or a friend who is an alcoholic. There are disputes dealing with infidelity, sex, religion and bullying, just to name a few.”

The website’s procedure for resolving conflicts is a form of alternative dispute resolution, defined as any method of resolving a dispute that bypasses the court system.

“[eQuibbly is] a relatively new type of litigation alternative,” Soskin wrote on the eQuibbly blog. “[It] has the potential to offer an even faster and cheaper means of resolving disputes than traditional Alternative Dispute Resolution — which includes mediation and arbitration.” On the site, much of the work is done by a widely dispersed group of people, a process known as “crowdsourcing.”

Soskin argued against the notion that the public is not capable of making well-informed decisions about serious personal disputes.

“Large groups of people are often smarter than an elite few,” Soskin said.

There will occasionally be miscreant voting, Soskin acknowledged. However, he said he thinks that the overall decision is one that will represent the wisdom of the crowd.

“For the most part,” Soskin said, “biases fade away as the number of voters increase.”

eQuibbly offers its users the choice of a public non-binding dispute, a private non-binding dispute or a private binding dispute in resolving these types of disputes.

Public and private non-binding disputes differ only in the number of individuals that are allowed to vote. They are similar in that once a vote has been tallied, that decision is merely a suggestion as to what should be done to resolve the conflict, not a legally-binding decision.

Legal ties are only present in a private-binding dispute. In this type of dispute, the participating parties must sign an agreement acknowledging that they are each legally bound by the outcome of the arbitration. In the instance that one party refuses to acknowledge the outcome of arbitration, eQuibbly directs users to a local court. In private binding disputes, users are advised to hire a mediator or arbitrator.

The site offers its users a list of professional arbitrators and mediators that they can choose from. Using an arbitrator or a mediator is usually not free.

“Most charge between $70 per hour to $150 per hour and some charge flat fees,” Soskin said. “These fees are split between the parties so each pays half of the fee which makes it very affordable and much cheaper than paying for an attorney.”

eQuibbly does not take a cut out of any of these fees.

The site instructs its users to first create an account with their name and email. Once they have created accounts, users can then post their dispute and invite the party at the root of the conflict to join as well.

Once both parties have agreed to use eQuibbly as a method of settling their disagreement, each party posts a web document called a testimony that others can read and make judgments on. eQuibbly offers a social media button which enables a user to invite friends to vote on the discussion.

Once the time span for voting has closed, one party is deemed the winner, and the resolution is resolved. If the negotiating parties are at a standstill, eQuibbly also provides a list of mediators and arbitrators for all its registered users.

Soskin addressed the concern that the agreements reached on eQuibbly tend to favor the party who is more popular on social media sites, and therefore has more friends who can vote. This has been a growing concern after the integration of the social media button on the testimony page.

“Anyone can vote, and eQuibbly visitors seem to vote whether they know the parties or not. The more popular eQuibbly becomes and the more traffic we get, the less reliant the parties will be on their friends since the other users will far outnumber them.”

Cyberjustice advocates like Soskin are not without their skeptics. Soskin stated that along with the positive feedback, there have been complaints from users that the eQuibbly team is trying to address. Some eQuibbly users have asked why eQuibbly administrators do not arbitrate disputes themselves, given their collective legal expertise.

“We have been giving this some thought but we have not yet come to a decision on this. We’re not sure how becoming involved in the disputes will affect this or whether most users even want eQuibbly to participate.”

Soskin said he wanted cash-strapped undergraduates to turn to eQuibbly as a significantly more affordable and convenient way of seeking legal help.

“We would like college students to know that there is an alternative to suing a person or a company in court,” Soskin said. “College students no longer have to pay thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees to get the justice they deserve.”

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