Online mediation here to stay, say Singapore, Japan legal experts

ST FILE PHOTO

TOKYO - Mediation, traditionally a face-to-face process, has moved online with the spread of Covid-19 in a trend that will continue after the pandemic, legal experts said at an online seminar on Friday (Nov 20).

Costs are lower and productivity is higher with remote mediation, making it an attractive option, they told participants at the seminar, jointly held by the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) and its Kyoto-based Japanese counterpart JIMC.

The two centres inaugurated a Joint Covid-19 Protocol yesterday to give companies access to online mediation at low rates, in the first such cross-border collaboration in the world.

"Many businesses around the world have been hit very hard by the pandemic. Disputes could increase. Parties may find it harder to fulfil their contractual obligations due to Covid-19," said Singapore Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

SIMC is one of the world's top mediation centres, having heard, since its launch in 2014, 130 cases with a total worth of over US$3 billion (S$4 billion) and an average settlement rate of nearly 80 per cent.

Despite the two centres' collaboration, Japan is not yet a party to the Singapore Convention on Mediation, which came into force in September. Previously, there was no effective means to enforce cross-border mediated settlements.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Singapore's Home Affairs Minister, urged Japan to join the United Nations treaty, which has already been signed by 53 countries, such as China, India and South Korea, and ratified by six.

Japanese attorney Yoshimasa Furuta of Anderson Mori & Tomotsune noted that Japan has been revising domestic laws to become more open to foreign mediation, and to adhere to the norms under the Singapore Convention on Mediation.

He said he expects legislation to be passed by the Diet by next year, at the earliest, with the signing of the convention to come afterwards.

JIMC-Kyoto deputy chief director Naoshi Takasugi noted the drawbacks of the online process, such as fears over confidentiality, and the difficulty of building rapport or reading non-verbal cues. But he added that these can be overcome through technology and adequate pre-mediation preparation.

SIMC chairman George Lim urged parties in disputes to look at mediation as a generally more compassionate option than litigation during these difficult times.

He said: "Businesses and individuals have suffered and will suffer. Disputes will arise not directly due to the fault of either party, but because of the situation."

SIMC chief executive officer Chuan Wee Meng added that he foresees a "hybrid" form of international mediation even when travel resumes, as online mediation can be arranged more quickly without the need for travel.

"This allows parties to have more preparation before the actual mediation, so that when they actually meet face to face, they are more prepared and will have a higher chance of success."