CLA News / A Delegate’s view of the Commonwealth Mediation Conference 2022: Bill Holohan SC


As I made my way to Belfast for the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) Commonwealth Mediation Conference I posted on social media (somewhat tongue in cheek):

“Duty calls me as a mediator to go to Belfast for the next few days. No, I am not going to mediate the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol. I am speaking at the Commonwealth Lawyers Association Annual conference on the Irish Experience as the Mediation Act 2017”.

A request was extended by Brian Speers, President of the CLA, to the ADR Committee of the Law Society of Ireland to provide a speaker who could address the topic mentioned. I am actually undertaking a Doctorate with the University of Northumbria and my research focus is on the attitude of Irish solicitors to the 2017 Act, so I eagerly volunteered, when duty called.

The use of the word “duty” is therefore somewhat of a misnomer. While I was hoping to gather some nuggets of gold in terms of information that might be of value, I was not expecting to find myself in a legal goldmine. However, that is indeed what the Conference presentations proved to be. As I made my way home from the Conference I emailed Brian Speers and said this:

“May I repeat what I said to you at the end of the conference yesterday. I am sure that there were so many people saying positive things to you that you probably recall it all as a bit of a blur. I again want to say that the conference was a triumph. Not a success, but a complete and sensational success. Rarely have I attended a conference with such a breadth and quality of speakers. You could have stretched out the Conference with the same speakers, for another day, and it would not have diluted the quality in any way. You should take a well-deserved bow or get your wife to give you a slap on the back”.

I meant every word of what I said to Brian. Speaker after speaker was of the highest calibre. The Ronaldo’s and the Messi’s of the mediation world turned out to speak at the Conference and the presentations “hit the back of the net”, every time. Those who did not attend will never know what treasures they missed out on, (unless recordings of the presentations are made available). The Conference brought together Lawyers, Judges and Mediation practitioners who shared their insights from their different perspectives on ADR, particularly mediation in practice, adoption of mediation in our various judicial systems and the impact of international mediation treaties and laws on local jurisdictions.

Experts who presented and/or spoke were George Lim SC, Chair Singapore International Mediation Centre, Lady Chief Justice The Right Honourable Dame Siobhan Keegan (Northern Ireland), Mr. Justice Sir Robin Knowles (UK), Master of the Rolls Sir Geoffrey Vos (UK), Mr. Justice Anthony Gafoor (Trinidad and Tobago), Barbara Jemphrey (Northern Ireland), Mr. Justice Huddleston (Northern Ireland), Deputy Attorney General Diana Asonaba Dapaah (Ghana), Santhaan Krishnan (India), Mr. Justice Francis Belle (Barbados), Mr. Justice Vasheist Kokaram (Trinidad and Tobago), Dr Peter D. Maynard (Bahamas), Sameer Shah (India), Olusola Adegbonmire (Nigeria), Maria Mbeneka (Kenya), Gareth Jones (Northern Ireland), A J Jawad (India), Rosalind Dunlop (Northern Ireland), Andy Rogers (UK), Feargal Logan (Northern Ireland), Matthew Moorhead (CLA), Hugh Mercer QC (UK), Hugh McGrattan (Northern Ireland), James Bridgeman SC (Ireland), John McKendrick QC (Scotland), Prof. Jackie Nolan Haley (US), Spenser Hilliard QC (UK), and myself Bill Holohan SC (Ireland). The presentations were all very informative, engaging, and interesting in equal measure.

The Conference was opened by Brian Speers who introduced the keynote speaker Lady Chief Justice The Right Honourable Dame Siobhan Keegan, the first woman to be appointed Chief Justice in any UK jurisdiction, who gave a very thought-provoking introduction in relation to the demands on the justice system and how mediation can help address these.

Introduced by Maria Mbeneka, CLA Council Member Kenya, the Chief Justice was followed by Mr. Justice Knowles, judge with day-to-day responsibility for the Standing International Forum of Commercial Courts (SIFoCC), who spoke about the workings of that body and commercial Courts around the world, making the most of mediation in commercial disputes and the important role played by mediation in dispute resolution.

This was followed by a lively panel discussion on “Mandatory Mediation” chaired by Northern Ireland solicitor Gareth Jones, the panel members being Sameer Shah (India), Olusola Adegbonmire (Nigeria) and Hon Justice Francis Belle (Barbados). Divergent views were offered. Mr. Shah spoke about how “In courts you will get Law, in mediation you will get Justice“.

After a short break, Kevin Neary, (Board Member Law Society Mediation Service – Northern Ireland (LSMS)), introduced the members of the panel who were speaking on “Mediation Training”, the panel being chaired by Mr. Justice Huddleston (Northern Ireland), the other panel members being A J Jawad (India), Barbara Jemphrey (Northern Ireland), and Hon Mr. Justice Anthony Gafoor (Trinidad and Tobago), who offered differing perspectives, but all of whom advocated the most extensive training possible.

After lunch, George Lim SC, Chair Singapore International Mediation Centre, was introduced by Santhaan Krishnan, immediate Past President CLA. Before briefing everyone on the evolution of the Singapore Convention on Mediation and developments in international mediation, he got everyone to stand and introduced them to the benefits of the shoulder rub.

The next panel, chaired by Rosalind Dunlop (Northern Ireland) spoke about “Unlocking Impasse and other key skills”, with interesting and entertaining contributions from Andy Rogers (UK) and Judge Vasheist Kokaram (Trinidad and Tobago), who provided a musical introduction to his address which got everyone “bopping to the beat”. While that was an excellent presentation, the star of the panel, (in my humble opinion), was Feargal Logan Northern Ireland Solicitor and mediator who is a Gaelic football manager and former player. He was a starting member of the Tyrone county team that reached the 1995 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final and he was the Manager of the winning 2021 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Team. He entertained us all with stories about unlocking impasse and the use of other key skills on a practical level. He focused on what can be achieved when we work together towards a common goal and other points. Brilliant and inspiring in equal measure.

Maria Mbeneka (Kenya) introduced Dr Peter Maynard (Bahamas), Mr. Hugh Mercer QC (UK), Mr. Matthew Moorhead (Commonwealth Secretariat), Mr. George Lim QC (Singapore), and Mr. Justice Robin Knowles (UK) who spoke on “Mediation of International Disputes”.

On Friday morning, the second day the Conference, Bridget Napier, President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland welcomed Sir Geoffrey Vos Master of the Rolls who, in the presence of Lady Chief Justice The Right Honourable Dame Siobhan Keegan, gave a very interesting address on the need for the judges to become more than adjudicators and more in the nature of dispute resolvers.  He made some very interesting points about the importance of integrating mediation into the dispute resolution system and the court system and it no longer being seen as “alternative”. His description of the existing justice system as an analogue system that has to give way to the digital revolution is not a prediction but an acknowledgement of where we are heading in redefining justice delivery and dispute resolution. Digital development of the courts and civil justice will undoubtedly enhance mediation. Online platforms will prompt parties more frequently to use mediation reminding them (and triggering them) to mediate. Online platforms that share data will help clarify the issues between parties making it easier to have conversations about the substance of disputes in mediation.

As Chair, Brian Speers led the panel staffed by Mr. Justice Vasheist Kokaram (Trinidad & Tobago), Hugh McGrattan (Solicitor & Mediator Belfast) and James Bridgeman SC (Ireland) who addressed the topic of “Should (sitting) judges mediate?”, with opinions being divided.

Michael Wilson (Board Member LSMS) introduced the pre-penultimate panel speaking on the topic of “Legislating for mediation”, which was chaired by Santhaan Krishnan (India), the other panel members being AJ Jawad (India), Diana Asonaba Dapaah (Ghana) and myself, Bill Holohan (Ireland). When I rose to speak, I addressed those present simply as “Friends”, on the basis that we in Ireland say that there is no such thing as a stranger, only a friend you have not yet met. More on friendship later.

The penultimate panel on “Mediation for family disputes” was chaired by Diana Asonaba Dapaah (Ghana), backed up by Rosalind Dunlop (Northern Ireland), Maria Mbeneka (Kenya) and John McKendrick Q.C. (Scotland).

The ultimate and post-prandial panel on “Confidentiality And Ethics” was chaired by Judge Vasheist Kokaram, who again entertained us all with a musical introduction. His fellow panel members were Olusola Adegbonmire (Nigeria), Spenser Hilliard QC (UK) and Prof. Jackie Nolan Haley who gave a remote presentation from the United States.

Closing remarks were made by Gareth Jones, LSMS, before the Conference was brought to a close by an emotionally moved Brian Speers, who thanked all those who attended and presented.

I mentioned earlier that I had emailed Brian after the conference saying that he should, in light of the success that the Conference demonstrably was, take a bow and/or get his wife Jenny to give him a pat on the back. She also deserves considerable credit for the success of the Conference as, along with Brian, she hosted the speakers to a dinner on the evening before the Conference opened, at Brian and Jenny’s spectacular home overlooking Belfast Lough. First class fare, and convivial surroundings, in the company of people I now call friends, made for a memorable and very pleasant evening. Strangers (in some cases) arrived on a bus, and left as friends.

Until very recently I had not heard of the CLA. I certainly had not contemplated becoming a member but now I shall certainly apply. This was my first CLA Conference, but somehow I do not think it will be my last.

Bill Holohan SC

(The independent Republic of Cork, Ireland).