Victoria University Business School


The Challenge

Legal systems In Australia and elsewhere struggle to cope with the volume and complexity of issues inherent in family law – marital separation, relationship disputes, child custody, parental child abduction and more.

Research Impact Summary

  • The research seeded developments in online family dispute resolution in Australia, Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Germany, Canada, The Netherlands and Belgium.
  • Research-based online dispute resolution systems (ODR) have improved access to justice, reduced the rate of default judgements, saved time for disputants, saved money for the courts, and have resulted in agreements between disputants that tend to persist.

Family Winning in Unexpected Ways

As far back as 2002 Victoria University’s John Zeleznikow understood the potential of new technology to foster dispute resolution. In their simpler forms ODR systems were used to help mediate disputes between buyers and sellers on platforms like eBay and PayPal. But then Zeleznikow developed a program called Family Winner, a game theory-based system designed to aid matrimonial property dispute negotiations.

Relationships Australia (RA), a leading provider of relationship support services, saw Family Winner’s potential and together with VU incorporated its design principles into an ODR platform to augment and ultimately replace RA’s telephone-based dispute resolution service. In a plot twist, the new platform was not rolled out as intended. Instead, the discoveries that were made in its development ended up vastly improving the original phone service in terms of privacy, mediator control, and usability.

Crossing Boundaries

The creators then turned their sights to international and cross border disputes by showcasing their new ODR system to family law organisations and courts in Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Germany.

RA demonstrated the ODR system to the European Network of International Family Mediators in Belgium, a body that was in the midst of developing an online system to help resolve complex cross-border disputes involving parental child abductions. The Network went on to build an ODR platform that relied on Zeleznikow’s insights. Japan’s family court system built its own version based on the same research.

Work Feted Abroad

Colin Rule, cofounder of software company Modria Ltd, and creator of ODR systems for companies like eBay and PayPal, said of Zeleznikow’s work, ‘The concept of an algorithmic approach that could synthesize much more information, and leverage game theory, heuristics, and argumentation approaches, was a revelation…[it] opened all of our eyes to a possible future where AI and computer code could handle much more complex matters than simple two-party monetary disputes.’

The research also captured the attention of lawyer and legal academic Professor Maurits Barendrecht, Research Director at the Dutch not-for-profit social enterprise, the Hague Institute for Innovation and Law. Barendrecht and others developed Rechwijzer (variously translated as ‘conflict resolution guide’ or ‘signpost to justice’), an ODR system based on the research that addresses divorce and separation.  Rechwijzer expanded to Canada in 2015 and to the UK in 2016.

Homing In on Recognition

In a ‘coals to Newcastle’ twist, Rechwijzer has been promoted in Australia as the kind of innovation that can help people who fall into the ‘justice gap’ – they can’t afford to pay a lawyer but aren’t poor enough to qualify for legal aid.

Colin Rule says, ‘The [ODR] descendants of this pioneering research are saving tens of millions of dollars in court costs today, and… will save hundreds of millions within the next few years.’

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