Dispute Resolution Reference Guide

Online Dispute Resolution

Dispute Resolution Series
Produced by Dispute Prevention and Resolution Division
 Department of Justice, Canada

August 2012

Table of Contents

I. What is Online Dispute Resolution

Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) “refers to a wide class of alternate dispute resolution processes that take advantage of the availability and increasing development of internet technology.”[1] It is a set of DR processes that allow for the resolution of disputes via online mechanisms such as the Internet or some form of technology that allows for virtual communication without requiring the parties to be in a room together.

Although almost all ODR processes tend to be ones that allow for written submissions only, there is a broad spectrum of ODR services that range from online arbitration to fully automated online ‘blind bidding’ negotiation services[2], and chat based mediation programs[3]. The selection of the appropriate ODR format may depend on the nature of dispute and the parties involved. ODR processes should also be convenient for the users and not cause any undue accessibility concerns.

There are three main types of dispute classifications within the ODR framework:

  1. Business to Business (B2B)

    Business to Business (B2B) disputes revolve around two commercial parties that are seeking to resolve a dispute over a specific transaction. The parties in B2B tend to be sophisticated users, and there is generally less concern over party vulnerability, and a greater emphasis placed on the convenience and expertise of the process.[4] With many B2B disputes resolved with some form of ODR, the use of arbitration is prevalent.[5]

  2. Business to Consumer (B2C)

    Business to Consumer (B2C) disputes are becoming more common, particular with the expansion of e-commerce. B2C disputes tend to be low-cost, but high-volume, and may involve unequal bargaining power between the consumer and the business. An ODR process may meet consumers’ need for redress against businesses and to provide the necessary support for due process rights.[6]

  3. Consumer to Consumer (C2C)

    Consumer to consumer (C2C) disputes involve transactions between two consumers (i.e. the sale of a used item). These types of e-commerce transactions are also becoming more common with websites such as eBay or Craigslist acting as facilitators between two parties, although the website is not an actual party to the dispute.

ODR and the courts

“Cyber-court” processes are slowly being adopted by court systems all over the world. For example, in the United Kingdom, since 2001, parties have been able to issue a Money Claim Online,[7] and since 2006, have been able to make a Possession Claim Online.[8] Australia’s Federal Court also includes an e-Court system which allows, amongst other things, for the parties to testify via videoconference.[9] However, few of the systems adopted by courts or tribunals involve ODR at the negotiation or mediation stage of the process, but rather allow parties to participate electronically in the adjudication process.

In Canada, most courts and tribunals have not yet adopted ODR technology as part of their case management system either as part of the negotiation, mediation,[10] or adjudicative process. An exception is in British Columbia where part of the case management system of the newly created Civil Resolution Tribunal[11] includes it at the negotiation phase of the case management process.[12]

Other tribunals may consider similar approaches. Courts are also being encouraged to investigate ODR by proponents of access to justice.[13]


ODR may be:

Voluntary: Most ODR processes allow the parties to elect to participate in them, or pursue their claim in another forum. Most also allow the parties to withdraw from the process at any given time.

Informal: The proceedings are generally more relaxed and informal than in-person proceedings such as mediation, litigation or arbitration. Depending on the ODR Provider and the rules in place, the process may be conducted in an asynchronous manner and allow the parties time to reflect on their positions before coming to any agreement.

Confidential: ODR is generally a confidential process, unless the parties agree otherwise. Notwithstanding a confidentiality clause or agreement, when the federal government is a party, the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act must be examined to determine the extent to which they restrict disclosure and withholding of information. For further information about the application of these Acts, please refer to the document entitled "Confidentiality: Access to Information Act and Privacy Act" contained in this Reference Guide.

Assisted: The ODR Neutral’s role is that of an impartial third party who helps the parties come to a mutually acceptable settlement. (Note that an ODR Neutral is generally only used if the ODR process contains a mediation or arbitration component.)



The primary purpose of ODR is to allow the parties to resolve their dispute with the use of electronic technology. It may occur in “real time” or unroll in an asynchronous manner, depending on the rules of the ODR Provider, as well as the wishes of the parties. Often, this process is more convenient and cost efficient than face to face meetings in order to negotiate, mediate, or otherwise resolve existing disputes.

The actual terms of the agreement that the parties come to can be as broad or as specific as the parties desire, particularly if the matter is concluded at the negotiation or mediation phase. The enforceability of the settlement agreement may depend on the rules and jurisdiction of the ODR Provider, particularly if the dispute is international.

The following questions could be important to consider in determining whether ODR is an appropriate manner to settle the existing dispute:

  1. Are there really only a few issues at stake?
    • ODR is best-suited to deal with a small number of issues, and is often best when the issue at stake is an amount of money rather than issues pertaining to liability.
  2. Are there only a few parties?
    • ODR works best when there are only a few parties.
  3. Can the factual and/or legal issues be concisely presented?
    • Given that most of ODR involves electronic communication, often in writing, it works best where the issues can be clearly stated.
  4. Are the factual issues dependent on the parties' differing opinions or on their credibility?
    • ODR is more effective where factual issues are not dependant on credibility.
  5. Are witnesses required to give testimony in order to resolve the dispute?
    • Some ODR processes may not easily allow for witnesses to testify, particularly if the ODR process focuses on the negotiation or mediation phase of a dispute.
  6. Are the parties being unrealistic regarding the outcome of the case?
    • Where the parties are unrealistic about outcomes, ODR may not be successful, particularly if the process is focused on the negotiation or mediation phase of the dispute.
  7. Is the issue of law relatively settled or in flux?
    • If there are issues of law that are unsettled, the matter may not be appropriate for ODR.


  1. Choosing an ODR Provider

    In some situations, the ODR Provider is chosen for the parties depending on the nature of their dispute (i.e. C2C disputants regarding an E-bay transaction are encouraged to use the E-bay ODR Process; parties to a dispute to a claim under the jurisdiction of the Civil Resolution Tribunal will proceed with the Tribunal’s ODR Provider and process).

    Where the parties have not identified an ODR Provider in a contract, or where it is not clear which ODR Provider should be used, the parties can choose an ODR Provider. Parties should take care to select an ODR Provider that is both competent and independent, possibly by selecting someone who has a TrustMark or Webseal that demonstrates their membership in a recognized ODR Provider association.[14] While there is no overarching ODR regulatory body, parties may still want to seek out ODR Providers who are independently certified.[15]

    Any ODR Provider should be clear of conflicts of interest with any of the disputants. This includes, but is not limited to, being a ‘captive’ ODR Provider to either disputant: if an ODR Provider is overly reliant on a party for its financial well-being, serious concerns over impartiality may be raised. It is unadvisable to have an ODR Provider resolve a dispute in which one of the parties is its client for another unrelated matter. As with other professional codes of conduct, the ODR Provider should seek to appear independent and impartial through strict avoidance of all real and potential conflicts of interest.

  2. Preparation for ODR

    There is no rigid format to be followed for ODR as the rules of the process depend on the ODR Provider. In preparing for ODR, it is important that the parties are aware of the rules that they will need to follow, and have gathered the necessary facts and/or documents to support their position.

  3. The ODR Process

    Much depends on the rules of the ODR Provider, and whether or not the ODR component will take place at the negotiation, mediation or adjudication phase. Generally, the ODR process will begin with contacting the other party to resolve the dispute, either directly or through the ODR Neutral. As with other dispute resolution processes, parties should consider the following:

    • What are the parties’ interests, not just their positions. Is there a solution that will create a win-win outcome or that mutually benefits both parties? (i.e. in an E-bay transaction, if the vendor refunds the purchaser’s money, the purchaser will remove negative feedback from the vendor’s profile.)
    • Effective communication is important. As much, although not necessarily all,[16] of the communication between the parties is in writing, carefully consider the choice of words and the tone of any written submissions.
    • Take your time to evaluate submissions and proposals for solutions. Ensure you properly understand what the other party is trying to convey. Look for underlying interests, not just positions.
    • Be aware that language difficulties may arise, particularly if you are dealing with an unsophisticated party unused to making written submissions, or someone whose first language is not the language of the ODR process. Where necessary, draw the attention to the ODR Provider or ODR Neutral to perceived communication difficulties.
    • Evaluate any proposals in light of your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). The BATNA is “the standard against which any proposed agreement should be measured.”[17] It is the best of all possible alternatives to the ODR process should the latter fail. Any solution should be superior to your BATNA.
    • Know the next step: if this portion of the ODR process is not successful, what is the next step to resolving the dispute? ODR mediation or arbitration? Or taking the matter to an in-person forum? Consider the cost-benefit analysis of continuing in the ODR forum.


Depending on the nature of the ODR process, the Neutral may:


Lawyers may or may not be involved in an ODR process, depending on the nature of the dispute and the issues involved. The presence of lawyers may be advisable if the matter involved is proceeding with a more formal type of ODR process that contains an adjudication phase and involves complex legal issues.

However, for many types of ODR that are more informal, flexible, and deal with low-cost transactions or issues, it may not be necessary to have a lawyer as the one to summarize the factual issues and legal arguments supporting his or her client's case.