Posted on Tuesday 13 December 2011 by Ulster Business
Law Society president Brian Speers believes that the expertise that exists in the local legal market coupled with Northern Ireland as a region successfully emerging from a conflicted society could make it an ideal destination for solving international corporate disputes.
Mediation is the process by which a neutral person chairs talks aimed at helping two opposing parties to reach an agreement they can both live with. Speers highlights Senator George Mitchell’s role in Northern Ireland’s peace talks as the perfect example of a mediator.
“Northern Ireland has emerged from a conflicted society. It has reached the point it has reached as a consequence of a meditative resolution,” he told Ulster Business. “Dispute resolution crosses borders, it is an international scene, and I think we can absolutely compete in this arena to bring commercial resolutions to cases.”
Having conducted over 50 commercial mediations, Speers is one of the most experienced mediators here, and is a visiting professor for dispute resolution at the University of Ulster’s School of Law.
He notes that, having spoken at international conferences about the possibilities of commercial mediation in Northern Ireland, it is clear that many other countries are trying to establish themselves as hubs for dispute resolution. However, he believes the province has a strong proposition and expertise comparable to anything on the international scene.
“Why is it that disputes are settled in Hong Kong or Singapore or London or Paris. Why are countries vying with one another to become centres for disputes? Because there is professional-led business to be done,” he explains.
“I think we need to get on our bikes and put on our mediation hi vis jackets and we need to be out there saying this is a great place to do business and also a great place to resolve disputes in business,” he adds.
“We have the hook of troubled society, the leadership and the mediation experience. We have a story to tell about how attitudes can be transformed, and we have the emergence of the legal sector in our economy. Legal firms are big employers, big consumers of services, big spenders of money in the local community. They can attract inward investment and export their services.”
Invest NI has an interest in this element of legal services and is understood to be in negotiations with an international dispute resolution organisation about establishing a base here in the new year.
But with the difficult economic environment leading to more disputes among local companies, Speers believes it is also something more local businesses should also consider.
More than 9 out of 10 disputes are settled before getting to trial, but this is mostly done through negotiations between solicitors. The Law Society president believes entering the mediation process would allow people to emerge feeling like they had had their day in court and been able to air their grievances and reach a commercial agreement that doesn’t feel like a hollow victory.
In some countries – including Australia and some US states – it is mandatory to ‘mediate before you litigate’. An EU mediation directive came into force in April for cross border disputes, which although stopping short of mandating it, does encourage mediation and could be very relevant here given the land border with the Republic of Ireland.
While Speers does not think we are quite ready for mandatory mediation in this part of the world, he senses there is a sea change in attitudes taking place.
“We now have a much better informed legal profession and there are now many solicitors and barristers with better knowledge about mediation and therefore better able to guide their clients towards it,” he said.
And for solicitors it is also another potential revenue stream at a time when many are struggling.
“I see this as being a response to the recession, particularly for solicitors who very traditionally saw their role as serving the local community with property and inheritances and divorces. When you think about it a lot of our indigenous businesses are family owned companies and a lot of those companies will have disputes arising between different generations, succession issues and those are very amenable to resolutions processes. Often people are just looking to ensure their legacy can continue,” he said.
“It is all about people and what you are seeking to do in a mediation process is to manage expectations and meeting their interests.”