The UK is already a leader in this emerging field and a centre for the settlement of international disputes, said barrister Jeremy Barnett, chairman of the Bar Council's IT panel and organiser of a conference on this topic supported by the BCS.
The London Court of International Arbitration used some element of online dispute resolution in more than 8,000 cases between 2001 and 2004. And the number of cases in which it has used online resolution from the outset has risen from three in 2001 to 200 in 2004.
Most cases have been consumer disputes about online purchasing. Online resolution only started being used for commercial disputes this year.
"The London Court of International Arbitration is using online techniques to support human specialists, but other services have emerged which, in effect, resolve cases themselves," Barnett said.
"Such systems show a high degree of sophistication in negotiation and settlement skills, often relying on artificial intelligence."
SmartSettle.com, for example, uses mathematical algorithms to help find a resolution to disputes, creating an automated negotiation tool. This creates a low-cost process for both parties. SquareTrade.com, attached to eBay, also uses this technique and is handling nearly a million cases a year.
"Online dispute resolution is at a critical stage in its development," Barnett said. "Facilities and services must be improved if lawyers and users from multinationals and government departments to internet shoppers are to be persuaded of its virtues.
"Even today, many would not think of turning to online dispute resolution as an alternative to traditional litigation. A number of lawyers and litigators are still reluctant to embrace new technologies. And there is a lack of awareness among many business people of the full power and cost-effectiveness in helping to resolve disputes in a timely and private manner."
Barnett said future services could range from the simple exchange of complaint and answer to the use of virtual trial or arbitration hearing systems.
"Virtual trials or hearings will be able to support bulk documentation transfer, storage and search tools, and remote users with access to sophisticated graphics tools - all in a secure environment," he said.
The UK is a leader in much of this, although it lags behind the US, Barnett said.
A group at Leeds University, for example, is working on grid technology and artificial intelligence to support online resolution. The group is working with the London Court of International Arbitration to bring together professional bodies, industry, government and academics to establish the UK as a world centre in this field.
London handles about 3,600 international dispute resolution cases a year, involving £36bn in disputed money. "In 10 years' time, if the investment is made, the UK could be at the heart of a world of global dispute resolution industry, where people will be resolving millions of disputes online,"said Barnett.
The IT Enhanced Dispute Resolution Conference, in Leeds on 11 May, will cover the the business challenges, how emerging technology can support trade mediations and arbitrations, and business implementation