CLA News / Commonwealth Mediation Conference Report from the CLA President, Brian Speers


On Wednesday evening 18 May, delegates gathered for a welcome reception at Law Society House to mark the commencement of the second Commonwealth Mediation Conference in Belfast.  Delegates had arrived from Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya and also from Barbados, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas.  We were delighted that George Lim SC had made the journey from Singapore.  George is the Chair of the Singapore International Mediation Centre and something of a thought leader on mediation internationally.

After the generous hosting of this reception in Law Society House, I was delighted to welcome the international delegates to my home for some at home refreshments and a meal. This proved an excellent way of forging relationships between the delegates, and hopefully contributed to a warm and friendly atmosphere throughout the Conference itself.

The Conference opened on Thursday 19 May when I invited the Lady Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Dame Siobhan Keegan, to make some remarks in opening the Conference.  The Lady Chief Justice emphasised the important role mediation has, and will continue to play, in the evolution of Civil Justice in Northern Ireland and she was introduced to the Conference by the immediate Past President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, Mr Rowan White, who recollected with fondness his participation in the last Commonwealth Law Conference in Nassau.

After the Lady Chief Justice had officially opened the Conference, it was a delight to hear from Mr Justice Knowles who is the day-to-day Chair of the Standing International Forum of Commercial Courts.  Sir Robin gave what can only be described as a tour de force of a keynote address, with an emphasis on the importance of integrating all dispute resolution mechanisms into the Civil Justice system.  With particular emphasis on commercial disputes, the delegates were left in no doubt of his support for mediation as one of a number of important opportunities for business to resolve disputes.  Adding in his predictions on climate change disputes and issues arising from the greenhouse targets and the expectations on businesses to comply, this was an exceptional keynote opening address and made a significant impact on the delegates present. It is likely to impact all those who will tune in and listen to the address through the CLA website.

At this stage, it is worth mentioning that all of the Conference sessions, including all the keynotes, were recorded and will be available to enable those unable to travel to attend, to enjoy and learn from these sessions and contributions.

Other reports will detail the sessions as they unfolded and this report simply notes that on every panel there were excellent and excellently prepared contributions.  It was stimulating to hear the thoughts from diverse jurisdictions, and the contributions from the floor were also lively.  Ranging from whether mediation should be mandatory to key skills in unlocking impasse and international trade disputes, the Conference sessions proved to be a winning combination holding the interest of all delegates.

On the afternoon of 19 May, the second keynote address was presented by George Lim SC.  George made many memorable contributions, but for his keynote after lunch, he thought it appropriate for all the delegates to stand and give something of a shoulder massage to their fellow delegates as an icebreaker and a further means of bonding the delegates; this was yet another memorable moment for which we all thank George.  The development of the international Mediation Centre in Singapore was both far sighted and ambitious.  Shortly after it was on track to be set up and commence work, the UN consideration of mediation, resulting in the Singapore Convention, was underway and George gave insight into how the Convention took place and how Singapore became the Chair for the purposes of hosting the sessions and then agreed to host the signing ceremony.  George emphasised that to sign the Convention simply gave a commitment to recognise mediation, to give it equal status to the New York convention on arbitration, and this provided me with helpful and timely insights in readiness for providing consultation feedback to the Ministry of Justice in London, who are presently consulting as to whether the UK should sign the Convention.

The sessions closed promptly on Thursday afternoon to enable delegates to see a little more of Belfast and to prepare for the Conference dinner at the Europa Hotel. Well attended by both the international and more local delegates, the dinner was also graced by the presence of Mr Justice Huddleston of the High Court in Northern Ireland, who had earlier chaired an excellent session on mediation training.  Suitably inspired by the Conference sessions and refreshed by the Conference dinner, the delegates looked forward to Friday 20 May at the Conference.

On Friday morning having collected the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, from Belfast City Airport and whisked him into Law Society House, it was pleasing that the Lady Chief Justice and Mr Justice Huddleston made an unscripted return to the Conference to hear what the Master of the Rolls had to say.  As the second most senior judge in England and Wales and in charge of Civil Justice, Sir Geoffrey was perhaps the first serving Master of the Rolls to have visited Belfast, certainly in many years.  It is fair to say that his keynote address on Friday morning made an immense impact on all those who had the privilege of listening to it.  Moving from the analogue world to the digital world, Sir Geoffrey shared that he made no notes on paper and simply operated from his laptop.  He envisaged a situation where parties access justice through uploading information, through some artificial intelligence examining the information and identifying cases which may be suitable for mediation.  He endorsed completely what Mr Justice Robin Knowles had said the previous day, namely that the Dispute Resolution menu should be integrated and seamlessly used, sharing information that was originally uploaded.  Time spent on resubmitting actual information or representing could thereby be avoided.  What was of overwhelming impact, was the scale of the expectation that using digitisation of information and filings would provide.  This vision of a digital future for Civil Justice was listened to with rapt attention by the delegates present, and many will take back to their home jurisdictions this glimpse into what a digital future for civil litigation might look like.  Again, the important keynote from Sir Geoffrey Vos will be available through the CLA website for CLA members.

The Conference sessions then continued with a lively discussion on whether judges should or should not mediate.  It is fair to say that there were mixed views on the panel, and that this variety of views were presented of course helped the discussion during the informal meetings that delegates so much enjoyed.  As Conference Chair I was just about able to get the Conference sessions back on track and with co-operation from everyone, we enjoyed a session on family law mediation with impactful contributions from Maria Mbeneka from Kenya, a CLA Council member, and from John McKendrick QC and Belfast’s Rosalind Dunlop highlighting the particular issues where mediation can assist in fractious and heavily conflicted family law situations.

We were then just on time to have a final Conference session on mediation ethics and confidentiality, and the delegates enjoyed a recorded contribution from Professor Jacqueline Nolan-Haley of Fordham University, New York, which generated an unexpected connection between our delegate from Ghana, the Deputy Attorney General, Diana Dapaah, and me, both of whom had studied at Fordham and enjoyed the wisdom and guidance from Professor Nolan-Haley.

Concluding the Conference, Gareth Jones, the Vice-Chair of Law Society Mediation Service, made an excellent summary of the events and paid a moving tribute to me as Conference Chair.  I provided some closing remarks and the Conference was brought to a final conclusion by Mr Justice  Vasheist Kokaram who had been ever present throughout the Conference, participating in a couple of sessions and chairing another, and we were then sent on our way by the sunny strains of Caribbean mediation enthusiasm.  Judging by the post Conference expressions of thanks from all of the delegates, both local and international, the Conference was by any measure a success, and hopefully the Conference recordings and the Conference papers will provide a rich source of learning to share.