Taking a dispute to a courthouse can cost a lot of money and a lot of time, and may not even lead to a conclusive resolution to the problem. Enter the Virtual Magistrate, an online arbitration project aimed at providing Internet users with a neutral third party to solve disputes without going to court. As an added bonus, there could be times when a lawyer may not be involved in a case at all.

A clear advantage to the Virtual Magistrate over traditional courts is the speed and efficiency with which a dispute can be resolved, said George Friedman, senior vice president and national director of online services for the American Arbitration Association. "There is no telephone tag or faxes. It becomes expeditious."

It could also provide a place for disputes to be handled. Access to civil courts has generally been decreased as limited court resources are spent on trying criminal cases.

A guiding principle of the Virtual Magistrate, said Robert Gellman, project director, is to "keep it out of the courts, and find a calm, rational way to solve disputes."

The Virtual Magistrate, which began earlier this year, doesn't award damages. "Our decisions are about if a posting should stay," Gellman said.

HOW IT WORKS

All case matters are handled online, with briefs and rulings distributed by

e-mail. When someone submits a dispute, the facts are collected and a committee decides if it is an appropriate case for the Virtual Magistrate. If so, a $10 processing fee is paid by the plaintiff and the case is assigned to one of eight magistrates.

Some submissions have been rejected, Gellman said, because they would be better for mediation, where a third party tries to persuade the opposing parties to make an agreement, rather than arbitration, where a decision is handed down by a third party, such as the Virtual Magistrate. There have also been some cases raised, then resolved on the proverbial courthouse steps, which didn't proceed to Virtual Magistrate arbitration.

"This is a pilot project, and we're not sure what will come about or how they will use it," Gellman said. "We don't know if there is a market for this."

The project welcomes copyright infringement cases, Gellman said. Challenging what could be considered an obscene posting is another dispute which could be brought, he explained. The magistrate would judge such a case based on the rules of a particular forum. If it is a sex-oriented forum, it would be less likely to be considered inappropriate than if the message is posted in a children's forum. This could be the online equivalent to local standards, which is a test used in regular courts in obscenity cases.

Bringing a case before a Virtual Magistrate requires voluntary agreement by both sides to participate and abide by the decisions, just like regular arbitration. Because it is an extra-court process, the Virtual Magistrate has few enforcement mechanisms beyond peer pressure and the agreement of the parties.

Noncompliance could, in some circumstances, be taken to civil court under breach of contract or other state laws by a party, but nothing like this has even been threatened with the project. "There has to be a degree of good faith for this to work," Gellman said.

FIRST CASE SUCCESS

The project has already executed its first case, Tierney and Email America, which had to do with a posting that the plaintiff asserted violated his right to privacy. An online company posted a notice on America Online (AOL) offering to sell e-mail address lists of as many as 20 million accounts.

James Tierney asserted that this was an invasion of privacy and an offering that could encourage excessive junk mail, and wanted the posting removed. The company which did the posting did not