How can justice leaders talk?

by Sam Muller for Slaw Canada´s Leading Law Blog

We urgently need to figure out how to talk about justice systems at the highest political level. As I have said before in this column: globally, justice systems are not delivering. Read the report of the Task Force on Justice. We need to make them better. That requires a new type of justice leadership and a new way of talking. 

Not All Justice Meetings Are Made Equal

On 19 and 20 June the ministers of justice of the G7+ met for two days in The Hague. The fact that they met made me rejoice. You can’t have enough ministers of justice sharing experiences and getting to know each other. Not long after that, I helped facilitate a gathering of leadership and talent of a big law firm and a 2-day expert meeting in Beirut on a justice strategy for one of our client countries. These three meetings had many of the same goals. They were all about justice. They were all about strategy. They were all about meaningfully engaging smart people on a critical issue and a complex topic. In all of these meetings learnings and results where expected. But in terms of how they were organised they could not have been more different. 

1. The Quiet, Natural Space

The law firm met in a quiet place, surrounded by nature. All participants were dressed informally. When they worked and talked they sat in circles 7 people, around a table or without one. Or they walked together in the garden. The agenda was shared in advance. A representative sample of those present had been interviewed beforehand about how things were going and what could improve. The outcomes where shared. Nobody carried papers and laptops. There were no phones during the meetings. The group talked about things of the mind and things of the heart. Vulnerability was shared: on a number of occasions I heard confessions of fear, screw-ups and not-knowing.  

2. A Phone-free Zone

The Beirut group met in a cheerfully designed hotel. Everyone was also informally dressed. We sat in a square, behind tables. Close enough to be able to look each other in the eye. Interpreters were needed to communicate. That made people very attentive to talking and listening. There was nice food in the meeting room. Here too, a draft agenda was shared. We started the first hour with a check-in. Everybody was given time to share how they felt, what they hoped and expected, and whether they had anything that prevented them from being fully present. We agreed on confidentiality: we would share, speak freely, work hard to deliver the desired outcome, but not allow what was said to leave the room. Phones were not allowed. We talked about things of the mind and things of the heart. 

3. Talking Like an Institution

The G7+ ministers met in a so-called ‘chique’ hotel. All were formally dressed. They sat in a large ´U´, behind tables. It created remoteness. Almost all of them were flanked by advisers, surrounded by papers and supported by screens. Interpreters were needed to allow people to understand each other. Almost everybody spoke from a piece of paper. Humanness and personality were shared sparingly. The ministers represented an institution and generally acted like one. Most of the words that were used were complicated. Unlike anything I had seen before, a survey had been done about what the ministers expected. That yielded remarkable data. But no one fully engaged with those expectations. They generally stuck to their prepared speeches. There was very little sharing of weaknesses. Nobody shared ´worst practices´ and ´failures´. 

The G7+ meeting was a remarkable meeting, by all accounts. It was more informal than usual. It was more open than usual. It yielded satisfactory results. But so much more is possible.  

Creating an Innovation-friendly Space

Justice ministers of the world urgently need to lead a movement to make justice systems more people-centred. To need to open them up to evidence-based working. Bring in innovation. And they need to create ways of doing that at a tremendous scale. To make that happen a new type of justice leadership is needed. The Justice Leadership Group – a group of former justice leaders at the highest political level – has been working to develop it. A method called Justice Dialogues: safe spaces where justice leaders can talk about how they can reinvent themselves to meet the tremendous access to justice challenge. In the business sector, concepts like MSC leadership are being increasingly used. Can we learn from that? 

A New Way to Talk

To discover what that new justice leadership looks like and to practice it there is an urgent need that justice ministers find new ways to meet and talk. In regions. Sub-regions. Nationally. Meetings were they can dress informally. Where confidentiality reigns. Where they can share best practices and what works. Where they can share failures. Fears. Concerns. Tears if needed. Where they can be confronted with what their stakeholders think about them in a different way, rather than through a roasting in parliament or in a media storm. 

You will continue to need formal, political decision-making meetings to make the world’s justice systems better. But also, you need more informal meetings like the one pioneered by the G7+ in The Hague. 

Shall we try one out between Canada and The Netherlands in 2019?