Accelerating justice solutions in Lebanon: The story of Willminds

Every year on 27 June, the UN commemorates  Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSMEs) Day. These enterprises which account for 90% of businesses, more than 70% of employment, and 50% of GDP worldwide remain the core of the economy for most societies (source: UN). The theme for this year’s celebration is “MSMEs and the SDGs: Leveraging the Power and Resilience of Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSMEs) to Accelerate Sustainable Development and Eradicate Poverty in Times of Multiple Crises

At HiiL, we know that justice providers face key challenges — Lack of innovation expertise, limited funding for transformation and growing public demand for transformation — and that justice start-ups can be integral partners in addressing these challenges. Our Accelerator is the only programme targeting innovations that support the resolution of justice problems. It supports tech, entrepreneurship, and innovation to improve access to justice. These partnerships bring innovative, scalable models that can develop and provide new services and support governments in realising people-centred justice.

On this World MSMEs Day, we are delighted to highlight one of our standout Justice Accelerator startups, Willminds, as a testament to the power of innovation in transforming the justice sector.

Two years after she participated in the Justice Accelerator programme, we met with Pascale Dahrouj, founder and CEO of Willminds, which provides new solutions to justice problems in Lebanon.

Pascale Dahrouj, founder and CEO of WillMinds – an international lawyer by training and a native Beiruti. © MAKMENDE/João Sousa

In fact, data shows that 68% of the people in Lebanon – two thirds of the population – have experienced one or more legal problems in the previous four years and just 21% of those people found a resolution. The most common, and most serious, of these problems concern neighbours, employers and family, threatening the most fundamental of human needs: relationships, income, shelter, and safety. More worryingly, only half of those with a justice problem even attempted to find a resolution. When asked why, the most common explanation is that they felt hopeless that a resolution could ever be found.

“But you don’t have to just sit with your problem,” says Pascale who set up Willminds, her mediation and arbitration company in 2020 which today is a leading innovator in the area of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)  and people-centred justice.  

“I knew that ADR is a solution but then thought: what if everyone turns to it and ends up facing the same backlog that we have in the courts? So, I started thinking about how we could innovate the process.”

Pascale Dahrouj and her team working during a typical office day in the WillMinds office on October 24, 2023 in Dbayeh, Lebanon. © MAKMENDE/João Sousa

Willminds approach to ADR  is one that is accessible to all and offers sessions both online and in-person. The online platform is clear and intuitive — no law degree required to understand how it works. 

“We have already seen 32 cases,” says Pascale. “Approximately 85% of them reached a settled agreement.”

Willminds’ impressive results stand as a testament to the fact that most justice problems in Lebanon can be resolved. And when they are, the impact is not just on the individual level,  but on wider society. This is testified by Willminds’ users who say the resolutions they found extended beyond them, to their families, their businesses and their neighbourhoods. 

For Philippe Khoury*, a dispute with neighbours who were repeatedly trespassing on his land was taking its toll. “It was a violation of our privacy and property rights. It was causing us stress, frustration and made us feel insecure.” He had tried to reason with them to no avail, and was preparing to pursue the issue in court, at great personal cost – time, money, yet more stress. But then his lawyer suggested Willminds. “They assigned a mediator who guided both sides through the entire process, kept the conversation focused on finding solutions, and assisted us in reaching an agreement. Throughout the process, I kept reminding myself I wished I had discovered Willminds sooner. I could have solved the conflict sooner and saved myself a lot of trouble and money.”

Now, says Philippe, “I feel comfortable and safe, and I live joyfully and with peace of mind. We even became excellent friends with the neighbours – we host them for dinners on occasion and they reciprocate. It is a two-way justice. We are both pleased with the outcome. It is a win-win situation.”

Willminds works with many mediators with different backgrounds to solve different types of disputes. Pascale Dahrouj, Founder and CEO of WillMinds, celebrates a successful resolution with the mediators who led the case. October 25, 2023 in Dbayeh, Lebanon. © MAKMENDE/João Sousa

Mrs. Haddad’s* problems started when arguments broke out between her and her siblings. “The company is a long-established family business that my siblings and I inherited. We couldn’t agree on how things should progress within the organisation, and there were numerous third parties interfering with the decision-making process. This problem was affecting our family, the entire workplace, the employees, and the business results. The only option we had in mind was a lawsuit, which we did not want to pursue due to the time, costs, and public exposure. We attempted to negotiate among ourselves, but each time the conflict escalated further.”

The family turned to Willminds and, according to Mrs. Haddad: “Through the sessions we found common ground and shared goals, which were not apparent at the beginning. The solution not only allowed the family business to function, but the family itself. Before I started working with Willminds, I was angry, stressed, frustrated and confused. This situation affected our family relationship in all aspects. We couldn’t be around each other anymore, we couldn’t sit together without fighting, and the problem seemed persistent and unsolvable. I couldn’t sleep at night because I felt overwhelmed and anxious. But now, thanks to Willminds, I am relieved, satisfied, and happy. I am now calm and tranquil, and I am sleeping well. Our family regained the feeling of closeness and feel more united as siblings than ever before.”

Willminds’ innovative approach to resolution and restitution is a clear example of People-Centred Justice. It is justice that is accessible, effective and designed to deliver solutions that not only resolve people’s issues, but preserve – even strengthen – their relationships. 

Pascale recognises that solving these problems is not just about the individual but society as a whole. When peoples justice needs are met there is a greater social cohesion. She is now keen for Willminds to do more than just provide ADR services but to reach and empower citizens with information and skills. They have launched a series of initiatives, such as producing a library of online videos that explain to Lebanese people their legal rights, in plain, everyday language. In schools and universities, Willminds are holding workshops to teach students the principles of mediation and arbitration, giving them a new way of thinking about problems that will serve them, and their communities, for the rest of their lives.

Pascale Dahrouj, Founder and CEO of WillMinds, congratulates a mediator who has just resolved a case on October 25, 2023 in Dbayeh, Lebanon. © MAKMENDE/João Sousa

“Everything we do,” Pascale says, “is focused on building trust within society. People-Centred Justice is not about solving any one problem or any dispute for the people. It’s about giving them tools so they can seek justice for themselves or help others get justice. This is how you empower them.”

Through HiiL’s work with justice providers in the private and public sector, as well as the data gathered in the Justice Needs and Satisfaction surveys we conducted throughout the world, we understand the significant challenges both citizens and justice providers face, such as a lack of innovation expertise, limited funding, and growing public demand for effective solutions. Collaborative innovation between ministries of justice, judiciaries, and startups like Willminds is essential to addressing these challenges.

By designing and delivering people-centred legal and justice services, we can ensure that justice is within reach for everyone.

*Willminds’ alternative dispute resolution is a confidential process; some names have been changed to preserve the claimants’ right to anonymity.