The first online pre-litigation mediation platform in Shanghai was put into use by a district court on Tuesday, partly in response to a rising number of civil cases involving a foreign party.
Foreign entities often find it hard to attend mediations, a process in which disputes can be settled outside of courtrooms.
Now, with mediations moving online, a plaintiff and defendant in a lawsuit no longer need to be physically present in a courtroom with a judge. Instead, they can all go online through video chat software to talk things over and reach an agreement.
A rising number of civil and commercial cases in the city involve foreign parties. Civil cases have increased an average of 11 percent per year for the past five years.
"In Pudong New District, where the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone is located and many foreigners work and live, the number of cases involving a foreign party is higher," said Cao Zhengquan, director of litigation services for the People's Court of Shanghai Pudong New District. "So we resort to online mediation to provide people a way that makes mediation more convenient, efficient and less costly."
Cao said his department has dealt with many divorce and debt dispute cases that involve people who live in a foreign country.
It often took a long time for the two parties to exchange evidence and submit materials to the court, and it was especially inconvenient if someone involved in a case was from a country that does not have judicial cooperation with China.
In such cases, the court had to ask for help from that country's consulate, Cao said.
"Now with video and audio available for online mediations, the two parties can present evidence during the video chat that can be accepted as legal proof," he said.
Online mediations will be used in cases with clear facts, where the rights and obligations of the parties involved are unambiguous and in cases that do not include a lot of evidence, such as disputes over loans or labor contracts. Cases involving private lending and changes in custody can also be mediated online.
People who want to use the platform need to download a special application and log in with a user name and password provided by the court. Then they can participate in the video call.
Shi Yifeng, a judge on the court's civil tribunal, used the online platform to mediate a civil dispute on Tuesday.
A young couple divorced three years ago and the husband was given custody of their daughter. Recently the woman brought a lawsuit against her ex-husband claiming he takes poor care of the girl, and she asked to be awarded custody.
Shi and the ex-husband were together in the courtroom, but the woman participated from home using the online platform.
"It went smoothly," Shi said. "After an hourlong mediation, the two sides reached an amicable settlement, with the man agreeing to transfer the daughter's custody to his ex-wife."
According to Cao, the litigation director, more courts will likely adopt online mediation as Internet technology continues to mature.