09/26/2012 12:07 EDT | Updated 11/26/2012 05:12 EST

Using cyber justice to solve real-world disputes

MONTREAL - Nevermind telling your side of the story in court, or to your best friend.

Cyber justice is starting to be dispensed to resolve civil disputes and personal disagreements. Sometimes it's left to ordinary folks to vote on winners and losers.

Take eQuibbly, for example. It lets people bring their personal and business disputes online — anything from complaints about loud music to boyfriends oogling other women to how restaurant tips should be shared.

Founder and president Lance Soskin cites the case of the oogling boyfriend and noted that people agreed with his fiancee that he should concentrate on her when they're out together.

"He responded with, 'Well I gave up my porn for her' and he thought that was quite an achievement," Soskin said from Toronto.

"Eventually people on the site just convinced him he was being rude and uncouth."

Participants read both sides of an argument and vote on who wins the dispute, which Soskin called "crowd voting." The web application is free to its users and obviously does not deal with criminal cases or more serious matters like divorce.

Technology analyst Duncan Stewart said theoretically the "crowd" should be impartial.

"There's this whole wisdom of the crowd thing — a million people know more than one person no matter how smart that one person is," said Stewart, director of Deloitte Canada Research for Technology, Media and Telecommunications.

"People are voluntarily contributing to the public good."

Stewart said eQuibbly does what has been done informally for years and added "even things that might be settled by the courts might start being settled by the crowd because they're better."

EQuibbly has a more serious side, though, which allows individuals and businesses to agree to a debate with a binding resolution.

Soskin sees shortfalls in the justice system that online dispute resolution might solve.

The justice system is somewhat biased toward people who have money and time, he said.

"You can't go to court for a few hundred dollars," he said.

"Most of the court systems in the U.S. and Canada are backlogged with thousands upon thousands upon thousands of cases."

The British Columbia government announced in May that it will set up an online tribunal to help people solve small civil claims outside court. It's expected to be in place by 2013-14 and save money on travel time and court costs.

"Once online dispute resolution is started, ongoing participation would be mandatory until a voluntary or binding settlement was reached," the B.C. government has said about the service.

There's also, which helps guide people through Ontario's small claims court system.

Associate Prof. Erik Knutsen said concerns have been raised in the legal community that individuals could either lose some of their rights or not be aware of their rights by having disputes resolved online.

But Knutsen said it's important to try to unclog the system and not have people wait a couple of years to get a resolution.

"It shouldn't matter where you are anymore," said Knutsen, who teaches at Queen's University.

"As long as the proper safeguards are there, if it gives more people access to the system they think is beyond them, who could be against that?"