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A divorced couple with children will inevitably have custody and support issues to wrestle with in the years following the breakup. But what about support for shared pets? Hiring a lawyer to help negotiate support agreements for a cat, dog or parakeet may not be an option for most people. But that doesn’t mean Tiger’s medical bills can’t be brought before a jury — for free. Using a new online venture called iCourthouse set up by two San Francisco Bay Area attorneys, one woman has done just that. The divorced woman filed a claim against her ex-husband asking that he pay for half of their sick cat’s care. After reading both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s trial books, online jurors are weighing in — and so far, Bush the cat’s urinary tract infection isn’t garnering much sympathy. “Cats are a possession,” one juror wrote. “Since the plaintiff kept possession of the cats, the costs for their maintenance and upkeep are the plaintiff’s alone. Grow up!” Launched by two Lafayette attorneys, iCourthouse is one of several new electronic ADR forums that offer a way to resolve disputes in the fast-moving and borderless world of the Internet. Unfettered by the jurisdictional and cost issues of traditional court proceedings, an infant but rapidly growing industry of private online ADR ventures are developing a niche, for small-claims or Internet-related disputes, even while they struggle to build credibility and necessary technology. “Criminal cases, involving as they do heavy-duty due process and confidentiality issues, are not what we do here, as of now,” says Clyde Long, iCourthouse’s CEO. “We’re providing the cyber-courthouse for any civil case where you want a binding result, or simply to put the case on and get feedback.” Outcomes in claims filed on iCourthouse are only binding if both parties agree ahead of time. Ultimately, Long hopes iCourthouse will continue to be used for small-claims-type disputes, but also that the lion’s share of the site’s activity will be providing training and offering attorneys a way to test cases without the expense of a mock trial. Eventually, an attorney will be able to select a “panel” jury based on demographics information and then test their case presentation, all the way from opening statements to graphical elements, evidence presentation and closing arguments. ICourthouse is unique among other online ADR outfits in offering “peer” and “panel” jury trials, but the heart of the various ventures is the same: a fast, inexpensive and accessible alternative to face-to-face dispute resolution. “There was a major change in the online environment that occurred six to nine months ago, largely because of the growth of electronic commerce,” says Ethan Katsh, director of the Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Online ADR is the solution to a variety of legal issues that we don’t have answers to, namely the problem of jurisdiction.” As young as online ADR is, the government has taken notice. In June, the Federal Trade Commission will hold a workshop to discuss ways of providing “transparent, effective, quick and inexpensive redress for consumers engaging in online transactions.” Starting from the premise that establishing and maintaining consumer confidence is a major issue for electronic commerce ventures, the workshop will explore issues that are unique to dispute resolution for electronic businesses. E-commerce customers typically expect business — including dispute resolution — to operate at a faster pace, online ADR experts say. These customers are likely to file their complaints when the problem is at an early stage and they want results fast. It makes sense, experts say, to solve problems from electronic transactions in electronic forums. Online ADR firms like San Francisco-based SquareTrade — for whom the University of Massachusetts’ Katsh is a consultant — offer e-mail-based complaint forms that disgruntled consumers can fill out. If a product ordered online doesn’t arrive on time and the vendor doesn’t handle the complaints quickly, for example, the customer can spell out his side of the story in the form, which is automatically e-mailed to the vendor. Often that’s all it takes, says SquareTrade CEO Steve Abernethy. Protecting their professional reputation motivates many businesses to resolve the dispute, before a human mediator even gets involved. But sometimes real mediation is necessary — and mediation by e-mail is a different beast than its offline equivalent. A skilled mediator in a traditional face-to-face scenario may not do well in the virtual world of online mediation, Abernethy says, which makes adequate training and monitoring of the neutrals essential. “Bringing in mediators trained in the offline world isn’t a no-brainer,” Abernethy says. “We find that their skills need to be modified to deal with a written record and to work in an asynchronous environment. The parties are not necessarily in the same room at the same time. It adds power to the experience, but it’s different.” Concerns about quality control and disclosure about fees and procedures have already come up in public comments solicited by the FTC. F. Paul Bland Jr., a staff attorney for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, cautioned the FTC in a comment posted on the agency’s Web site that other forms of dispute resolution can be unfair to consumers. “A great many American consumers have lost important constitutional rights to mandatory binding pre-dispute arbitration without realizing that this has occurred,” wrote Bland. He went on to urge the FTC to ensure that online ADR be “voluntary (not mandatory), non-binding and post-dispute in nature.” Bland notes that mandatory arbitration clauses appear in some credit card agreements, employment contracts, and HMO and health insurance contracts. While few in the online ADR business support strict government controls on online mediation, some do support general guidelines for the sake of building credibility. “The government could require that certain aspects should be in place, like quality control about who you select as neutrals, that you screen and monitor them, and that you disclose how you did those things,” SquareTrade’s Abernethy says. “It wouldn’t be productive [for the government] to detail how those things happen.” On one thing, everyone agrees: The June 6 and 7 workshop in Washington, D.C., has already been helpful, by beginning a needed conversation. “When people become aware that the government is interested, people respond,” says Katsh. “Already there are 39 opinions [posted on the FTC's site], and that’s 39 more opinions than were out there before.”

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