From parking tickets to divorces: A legal tech startup digitising mediation

Founded by Aditya Shivkumar and Joe Al-Khayat, London-based startup Resolve Disputes Online (RDO) helps parties settle disputes virtually via negotiation, mediation & arbitration—without stepping into a physical court.
874 CLAPS
0

You can buy groceries online. You can even buy a house online and conduct pretty much all transactions via the internet. But what if we told you that you can also settle legal disputes online?

Welcome to the space of online dispute resolution (ODR) and meet Resolve Dispute Online (RDO), a London-headquartered legal tech platform that helps settle disputes virtually by way of negotiation, mediation and arbitration—without stepping into a physical court.

The beginning of Resolve Disputes Online

Like most startup foundation stories go, this one also started with a friendship. Law students Aditya Shivkumar and Joe Al-Khayat met at Cardiff University. Their enthusiasm for representing the students’ interests at law college as well as their passion for mediation made them good friends. They were also among the youngest candidates to be accredited as mediators during their time in England.

In 2010-11, Aditya and Joe set up a startup called “Mediate It Online”, which offered mediation services online for individuals in the United Kingdom.

“It failed spectacularly. And I say 'spectacularly' because we learnt a lot from the failure. It failed because we were way ahead of time,” says lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Aditya.

The duo kept in touch despite practising privately in separate locations—Aditya as a lawyer and mediator in Chennai and Joe as a barrister, solicitor, and mediator in London.

Aditya says that both of them were concerned and passionate about “access to justice”. While recognised as a fundamental right by international standards, about “57% of the world’s population lives outside the shelter of the law”, according to LexisNexis Legal & Professional, a global provider of legal, regulatory and business information and analytics.

Access to justice for all is a global objective as part of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal 16. Aditya and Joe wanted to do something about the fact that most people are disconnected from the legal system.

In 2015-16, the duo started working on a tech platform to bridge the gap. They registered RDO, a SaaS (software-as-a-service) B2B (business-to-business) startup, in 2017.

Understanding RDO’s business model

Aditya says RDO is the only online dispute resolution firm that has been designed and built in India to be serving the global B2B segment.

The startup’s tech platform is sector agnostic and can be customised to settle all kinds of disputes.

Currently, RDO offers B2B online dispute resolution services by partnering with courts, tribunals, governments, businesses and alternative dispute resolution experts in the US, the UK, Australia and Southeast Asia.

RDO’s services can be applied to any type of case including family law, civil litigation, traffic and parking disputes, bankruptcy as well as criminal and misdemeanour cases.

In the B2B model, RDO integrates its software with the tech platform used by the client (such as businesses, courts and governments) as an add-on module or offers to set up a standalone ODR platform for them. Essentially, the enterprise customer white-labels RDO’s product and uses it in-house to solve disputes.

The clients pay RDO on an annual subscription basis.

RDO has several clients, including the Government of Thailand, and one of the largest dispute handlers in north and central America. Overall, it has completed over 10 projects (including some pilots) in the last seven years.

For instance, RDO has conducted pilot programs for Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower to help settle employment disputes on their tech platform and the Vietnamese government to resolve small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) disputes.

It is also working with the Thailand Arbitration Center (THAC) backed by the country’s government, which wanted to move to online dispute resolution due to an increase in caseloads. THAC tried doing that by using a number of tools such as information storage systems and emails. However, this led to duplication of work among administrators, arbitrators, case workers and mediators.

To solve this issue, THAC partnered with RDO to use its tech platform and settle some of its disputes online.

“With RDO, THAC’s efficiency has increased. It is a great alternative to court systems and is helping provide a huge amount of relief to the consumers. We’re in the third year of our partnership with THAC. That clearly shows something is working,” says Aditya.

Some use cases of RDO’s platform

Online disputes resolution provides parties with an option of using either text or video or a combination of both, meaning users can access the proceedings from anywhere in the world. Users needn’t interrupt their daily life or travel to another location to sort out a legal issue.

The platform works in much the same way as netbanking or online tax filing. For instance, with respect to traffic and parking cases, the defendant can choose to request for an online trial from the court’s ODR platform. After the request has been accepted, the person receives a link to their case dashboard via text message or email.

The dashboard contains the case details and the defendants can add information including images, video and justifications/counter-arguments to defend themselves.

The case is assigned to a judge who will view the same information as the defendant. The judge can use the award-builder feature to give the judgement. This would typically include reasoning for the judgement and the fines that need to be paid in a given period of time. The judge can e-sign the order and share it with the relevant stakeholders including the defendant.

Another example is that of a divorce—a delicate issue where a range of emotions are involved. “In divorce cases, things can get tricky, especially if there are children involved. Some may not want to be in the same room as the other person. Through ODR, the two parties can either negotiate and arrive at a conclusion or take the help of a mediator or an arbitrator to get a divorce - virtually,” explains Aditya.

Those seeking a divorce can use the ODR platform to register their case and invite their lawyer, a mediator and an arbitrator and the respondent and their attorneys.

Each stakeholder can manage areas of their own case on the dashboard. It would show the tasks that are due, the history and documentation of the case, upcoming appointments, pending payments and settlements made. Depending on the stakeholder, they would receive alerts for upcoming tasks, appointments and approaching deadlines.

Mediators and arbitrators can manage and easily switch between multiple cases on the platform. The software includes chat rooms where one person can communicate with select or all of the involved parties via text, voice and video calls.

RDO’s growth plans

The B2B SaaS startup raised an undisclosed seed amount in 2020 from a couple of investors, one is a Canada-based media conglomerate and another, a large legal tech provider for courts in the US.

RDO is in talks with investors to raise its pre-Series A fund, which it expects to be concluded by the end of the year.

Aditya says the legal tech startup has relied purely on word-of-mouth references, cold calls and conferences to get customers.

“We’ve grown organically so far. The next phase of growth, however, would involve us engaging with the stakeholders in the ecosystem to create more awareness about RDO and its offerings. We have spent about 0.5% of the total capital raised on marketing,” says Aditya.

Except for one co-founder (Joe) and a couple of other employees, the rest of RDO’s 25-member-strong team is based in southern India. The team was earlier working out of an office in Chennai but like many other companies, it is currently working remotely and has plans to move to a hybrid model soon.

“Though RDO is not headquartered in India, it is built purely in India. We have tried to be diverse in our approach to people and hiring,” says Aditya.

Aditya says RDO is the only non-US firm to be recommended as part of the ODR vendor services list by the National Center for State Courts, an independent, not-for-profit organisation that is focussed on improving the administration of justice in the US and courts around the world.

The startup is also one of the ODR platform providers to be a Microsoft partner. Depending on Microsoft’s discretion, it would pitch the startup as one of the ODR providers to its customers.

“By next year, we hope to be like “the junior partner” of Microsoft’s legal tech offerings and expect it to be a significant revenue churner,” says Aditya.

The legal tech startup is currently clocking revenues that are in the mid-range of 6- to 7-figure numbers, according to Aditya. RDO is likely to take another three years to turn profitable given its expansion plans.

RDO is now looking to launch its solutions for the B2B2C (business-to-business-to-consumer) market in England (one of the hubs for mediation and arbitration) by the end of the current calendar year. “With a strong base in the B2B segment, it is only logical that we extend our presence in the B2B2C space,” says Aditya.

Under the B2B2C model, RDO will tie up with businesses who would request its users and customers to use the former’s platform to raise and settle any disputes. RDO would feature as the ODR service provider in the agreements between the businesses and users/customers. Any disputes raised would be settled by the mediators and arbitrators empanelled on the legal tech startup’s list.

RDO would earn by way of a revenue-sharing arrangement between the startup, the businesses, users and mediators/arbitrators.

There are a few B2B2C players such as Presolv360 and Sama that offer to settle a portion of businesses’ disputes using their respective platforms.

However, the current ODR platforms in India have their own sets of rules (under the Indian mediation and arbitration laws) that their users have to abide by whereas RDO says it would not have a separate set of rules under the main laws and that it would just provide the platform and mediator/arbitrator services.

“My belief in the system is absolute. We only want to complement the system and do not want to step on the shoes of the system. We are very clear about the fact that our users need not subscribe to a set of rules that are subservient to the overarching laws,” says Aditya.

Adding further, the co-founder says, “We do not want to go down the institutional route. This is to prevent friction for the end users. Why should an individual be subjected to an additional set of rules? I fundamentally believe that the Indian approach to solving access to justice is by far one of the best in the world.”

Although there is no single legislation that backs ODR, there are various support legislations such as the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 and the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 that provide the backbone for the alternative dispute resolution mechanism feature of ODR while the Indian Evidence Act, 1972 and the Information and Technology Act, 2000, provide backing for the technology aspect of ODR.

Further, India has also enforced the United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation, 2018, since last year.

All arbitrations fall under the purview of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, while for mediations, we have The Mediation Bill, 2021, which is yet to become a law in India. The total global legal online dispute resolution market size was $57.3 million in 2020 and is expected to grow to $210.53 million in 2028, according to Emergen Research.

Commenting on RDO and the ODR space in general, Mark Beer, Co-founder of the Seven Pillars Law, a global law firm headquartered in Kazakhstan, and Chair of the Advisory Board for RDO, said, “Is it that we think that if the courts get more judges, the system will get better? No. If the court system gets more money, will the system get better? No. The answer is the private sector. And, the answer is to find an organisation that has significant experience in resolving disputes, uses technology, gives people what they need at the end of their mobile device and fills what I call the ‘justice chasm’.”

Can I dial a mediator/ an arbitrator?

Once RDO gains some traction in the B2B2C space, it has plans to venture into the B2C space in countries including India though the plans are pretty speculative at the moment, according to Aditya.

“Both Joe and I are very passionate about access to justice. We want to democratise this whole process of getting justice,” says Aditya. “Justice should be accessible to the common person.”

Just like the way one would book an Uber/Ola ride, RDO’s grand plans include providing access to justice for every individual with a few clicks. “Can I resolve my dispute within the palms of my hand? Can I bring access to justice within the comfort of my phone? We will focus on the democratisation piece once we gain some traction in the B2B2C space,” says Aditya.

In this model, mediators and arbitrators would be empanelled on RDO’s platform. Based on the issue raised/case registered, it would be assigned to a particular mediator/arbitrator based on several factors.

“The key is to simplify an individual getting access to justice. If a common person can get justice or a solution to the problems they face on a daily basis, that system is a model system for the world,” says RDO’s co-founder.

All the stakeholders need to come together to make ODR a success in India. There are 4.2 crore criminal and civil cases pending (as of July 15) in India of which nearly 75% are older than a year, according to the National Judicial Data Grid.

(This story was updated to correct typos and with new images)

Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti