The move towards professionally-led mediation as a solution to commercial disputes is to be given a boost with the opening later this year of a dedicated Mediation Centre in Belfast city centre, the brainchild of the Bar Council of Northern Ireland (the professional body for the region’s barristers).
The new purpose-designed Centre is due to open its doors in the later autumn at The Boat, the eye-catching office/apartment building on Donegall Quay.
“We chose the location carefully. It’s in the centre of the city, it’s within walking distance of the courts and the Bar Library, it’s accessible and it’s close to transport links,” says David Mulholland, the Bar Council’s Chief Executive.
So what motivated the Bar of Northern Ireland to take forward the idea of a Belfast-based mediation centre, and what can businesses expect from the new facility?
“Traditionally, a wide range of business-related disputes have ended up being taken to court for resolution. But it’s clear that a lot of these cases can be resolved much more quickly and much most cost effectively by going through a properly-constituted, legally-led mediation process,” says Mulholland.
“It’s a very effective alternative to litigation and it takes place outside the daunting confines of court rooms. So we find that it can be less adversarial and less stressful for the parties concerned….not to mention the cost savings.
“What’s more, if parties can agree in a fairly swift and amicable way, mediation can do less damage and help keep relationships intact going forward. It’s no surprise that it has been growing in popularity here in Northern Ireland.”
The growth is being actively encouraged by Northern Ireland’s leading commercial barristers and QC’s, by the Bar Council and by local solicitors. They agree that mediation is a positive approach in many cases, and that its success will help to take some pressure off local courts.
“Solicitors specialising in corporate and commercial law are behind it and our own commercial barristers are certainly keen to promote mediation. Up until now, mediation has grown organically, so we’re confident that the opening of the new centre will make it even more popular as more and more cases are solved by this route.”
Similar Mediation Centres are already up and running in London, Edinburgh and Dublin.
“We’re keen to promote the Belfast Centre as a place where parties from outside of Northern Ireland can bring their disputes for resolution,” adds David Mulholland. It’s an approach that mirrors the growth of what has become known as ‘legal tourism’, the increased number of commercial cases being brought to Northern Ireland for trial.
“The growth has come about for a couple of very clear reasons. Firstly, we have a very strong legal system and a group of barristers with an excellent reputation far beyond the confines of Northern Ireland.
“Secondly, we can process cases a lot more cost effectively here than anyone could hope for in London. It might be the premier city for commercial litigation….but it’s also the most expensive on these islands.”
In fact, David Mulholland is due to join an Invest Northern Ireland-led trade mission to New York and Washington in September where he’ll be promoting Northern Ireland as a ‘come to’ venue for legal procedures.
“Between ourselves here at the Bar Council and the Belfast Commercial Bar Association, we’ve been looking at ways of bringing more legal work into Northern Ireland, and this is just another step along the way.
“The Mediation Centre will add another string to our bow and improve the offering that we can put in front of potential legal visitors.”
So what kind of disputes might be discussed and settled in the rooms of the new Belfast Mediation Centre? “Any kind of commercial dispute, from elements of mergers and acquisitions to disputes between partners with a lot more in between,” says David Mulholland.
“It has been shown to work. There is no doubt about that. At the moment, I’d say that it is still under utilised here in Northern Ireland, but it is gaining traction and it’s gathering momentum.”
Away from the world of business, the new Mediation Centre will also be busy handling a wide range of private cases. It’s easy to see, for instance, how it can play a useful role in the many elements of family and divorce law…helping to negate the need for costly court proceedings.
“The Centre will be open to all. It will be completely inclusive and that’s exactly how it should be. We’ll facilitate it and we’ll run it along with the barristers and the solicitors. But it’s the people who use it who will make it work.
“For now, our message is simple. We want more people to consider professional mediation as an effective means of resolving disputes.”