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The ADR Imperative to Ensure Access to Justice

JAMS ADR Blog by Chris Poole

On July 6, a diverse group from the dispute resolution community—lawyers, judges, academics, arbitrators, mediators, policy makers, among others—will gather in London for the latest event in the Global Pound Conferences Series. They will participate in an important dialogue on the critical issues to the development of dispute resolution in the 21 Century—a conversation I was grateful to be part of earlier this year. 

Life’s lessons on access to justice 

First, a bit of history. In April 1976, The Pound Conference, named in honor of Roscoe Pound, was held to discuss the need for reform in our judicial system. At the conference, Harvard Law Professor E.A. Sanders proposed alternative forms of dispute resolution be used to reduce reliance on conventional litigation. Many in the field of ADR credit this seminal event and Professor Sanders’ subsequent book, “Getting to Yes,” as the inspiration for modern day mediation. 

Forty years later, the International Mediation Institute decided to create a similar event, called the “Global Pound Conference Series: Shaping the Future of Dispute Resolution and Improving Access to Justice.” The IMI had the ambitious goal of holding conferences in 40 cities worldwide. Each event would capture and share a local perspective on issues involving access to justice and “appropriate dispute resolution.” 

In late 2015, I agreed to co-host the conference in San Francisco. A February 2017 date was set, and we began the odyssey of planning with a local organizing committee of mediators, attorneys and ADR thought leaders. 

What is access to justice? 

There was one glaring problem, however. I had a complete lack of inspiration for the conference. We in Northern California represent the future of ADR to many aspiring ADR professionals around the world. What could we possibly learn? How would a conversation concerning access to justice be meaningful to attendees? The harder I contemplated these questions, the more acute my lack of enthusiasm.  

In certain mediations, I try to get out of the way and let options develop. So, I did the same when confronted with the question: “Why is access to justice so important to a Northern California audience?” Soon, the answer would appear in front of me.  

In January, I traveled to Rwanda to train judicial and government officials in mediation. Before the program began, we visited the Genocide Memorial, where we laid flowers on a mass gravesite containing the remains of over 250,000 murdered Rwandans. We also learned about the post-genocide creation of “truth and reconciliation” courts, which provided meaningful access to justice for its victims. I witnessed a mediation, which brought together a gentleman who had committed atrocities and a relative of one its victims, to discuss forgiveness and reconciliation. 

In February, I traveled to India to teach mediation skills. There, the former Chief Justice of the India Supreme Court discussed the critical role of mediation in India. He described a judicial system stretched to the breaking point under the crushing weight of 33 million cases, while asking, “At what point does justice delayed become justice denied?”  

His point was driven home when one of the course participants mentioned she had recently helped resolve a property dispute involving two generations of an Indian family. The case had languished in the court system for 23 years. 

What I learned here at home 

I was tempted to think these lessons regarding access to justice were unique to cultures outside of our own, but I was mistaken. When I returned from my trip and landed at the international terminal at San Francisco Airport, I walked past a throng of protestors, angry about the administration’s efforts to restrict immigration. One woman held a sign reading, “Immigration Attorney. Free Legal Advice.” I realized that access to justice could be lacking even in Northern California. I had found my inspiration for the Global Pound Conference. 

Throughout the conference, I couldn’t help but appreciate the imperative that the ADR community help ensure access to justice, while advancing the development of appropriate dispute resolution around the globe. Perhaps this was the greatest lesson to be drawn from the San Francisco Global Pound Conference. I know it was for me.


Bruce Edwards

Bruce Edwards was one of the pioneers in developing mediation as a tool for resolving commercial disputes in the United States. A professional mediator since 1985, he has mediated over 7,000 disputes throughout the United States, focusing on large, complex disputes often involving high emotions.  He has played a central… MORE >

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