Dispute System Innovation at Stormont

29 September 2015

By Maurits Barendrecht, Research Director 

I woke up several times during my night at the Europa hotel in Belfast. Perhaps their marketing as "the most bombed hotel in the world" hit me subconsciously. Most likely it was the avalanche of experiences around the innovation workshop hosted by the Committee for Justice of the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Assembly.

An innovation workshop taking place in this rather conservative justice corner of politics? Yes it happened. The committee wanted to hear more about the Rechtwijzer solution for online dispute resolution, as well as other innovations in the justice sector. My presentation of the Rechtwijzer prototype was part of a series of events launched by committee chairman Alastair Ross, a smart 34 year old politician from the Democratic Unionist Party. Inspired by his previous responsibilities for economic development, Alastair wants to bring innovative thinking to the world of judges, barristers, lawmakers and law enforcement .

Talking with leaders from the Northern Ireland justice sector made me feel modest. Trained as an adversarial lawyer during the era of "the Troubles" who turned academic studying dispute systems, and now research director at an institute co-creating innovative systems for online dispute resolution, I listened for hours to what the masters of dispute system design have implemented here. I was overwhelmed by the many innovations in a country that more or less had to be redesigned as a dispute resolution system.

Here at Stormont, an outsized parliament building in a park near Belfast, citizens can organize events that contribute to the common good. Seats in the cabinet are divided in the Swiss way - each party represented in proportion to votes. The Ministry of Justice is supposed to stay in neutral hands, not in those of Sinn Fein or the Democratic Unionist Party. The city allows the parties of the conflict in the 70s to keep their symbols: flags in streets, marches in the early summer and even pretty aggressive murals with masked men holding stenguns. Identity is allowed, rituals may proceed, but actual violence is out of the question. The country also heavily invested in a new, neutral part of the city, where young Catholics and Protestants are just living life rather than picking up stones. The city still has dozens of walls separating neighbourhoods, but you have to look for them carefully; and now some have doors that are open during the day, linking parks at both sides.

Paths to peace and justice are always rocky. Two weeks ago the cabinet fell apart, over wounds from the time the Troubles were very close to an all-out civil war. The parties are now negotiating a new deal and the going is tough. But today, nobody is afraid of being bombed. Not even the police are armed with heavy machine guns. In this country, having good dispute resolution systems is a top priority. Legal aid spending per capita is huge, and the judiciary is very neutral and held in high esteem.

Leaders from the legal profession, the judiciary and political parties know exactly what to ask during the Q and A session: How does Rechtwijzer guarantee a balanced, fair outcome, if one party is weaker? What about informed consent? If one party does not cooperate, how do you incentivize him to come back to the platform? Is the information exchanged allowed to be used in public court hearings?With this new channel, what types of disputes will have the most value?

We also talked openly about the risks and benefits for the legal profession. Will innovation take away their jobs? Will it allow them to move up in the value chain, delivering more value to people who need fair solutions and new ways to bring order in ever more complicated relationships? At Stormont, everyone knows there are groups that make their living from day to day conflict, preventing it and keeping it manageable. These groups have to see new opportunities. Otherwise they will not help to make innovation happen.

One question struck me as special: Can Rechtwijzer guarantee that people tell the truth? We tend to think of Rechtwijzer as a platform for mediated agreements, with the option for an adjudicator to give a fair decision. Mediators tend to allow people to have different perspectives on what happened. Truth is relative, not absolute. Fact-finding may be useful, but it can easily generate new munition for conflicts. Here in Northern Ireland, people clearly still want to know more about the past. They value truth and are also very keen on preventing conflicts. Overcoming this tension is one of the big remaining challenges for designing dispute systems.

At the end of the session, I asked this knowledgeable group for their advice to us. They had to think about this for a moment, but it was quite straightforward: keep going. Yes, of course we need justice innovation - in workshops, through prototypes - challenging and ever improving them. Thank you, Northern Ireland, for sharing your knowledge and experience, and for teaching us modesty.