Justice Champions of Change:

How one change-maker orchestrated sweeping justice system reforms in Dubai


As Registrar of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) Courts and then Chief Executive of its Dispute Resolution Authority, Mark Beer oversaw a transformation of justice delivery in Dubai that improved quality and efficiency and had huge impacts on the emirate’s ability to attract foreign investment.

The Courts’ approach was highly innovative. After asking businesses about their needs, the DIFC Courts adopted a new legal framework. The Courts also established Dubai’s first Small Claims Tribunal, diverting minor cases from the main courts; increased access to justice by providing pro bono legal assistance; and implemented “virtual courts” that included the ability to access court proceedings via a smart phone

Mark Beer is the former president of the International Association for Court Administrators. In the latest installment of our Justice Champions of Change series, he talked to the Task Force’s Sam Muller about what it takes to deliver effective justice reform.

Mark Beer (Photo: Wikimedia)

Sam: The Task Force report paints a damning picture of our failure to provide justice for all. What do you think went wrong?

Mark: Justice has no voice. If you look at the three pillars of any society — whatever people’s political affiliation, they are healthcare, education, and justice. Healthcare has a very powerful voice, it has a strong set of advocates. It connects with people, and they understand that if one doesn’t invest in health, it may impact them and their loved ones. Education, too, lobbies hard — it’s about the future and people understand its value to them and their children.

But justice doesn’t have an effective connection with the Treasury departments that need to fund it, or an approach that connects with people in ways that show them they will be worse off if their justice system doesn’t work. So justice may well be blind, as the saying goes, but it also seems to be mute in many countries. We live in a world where justice doesn’t seem to have a voice.

Sam: Yes, the Task Force report argues that we need a stronger voice for justice. Do you have any ideas on how we can organise that voice?

Mark: We need a clear, universal narrative that’s voiced in a way so that anybody talking about justice can give a similar, consistent message. And that message needs to explain why a reasonable person should care about justice, and what it means for them and their families.

We need to phrase the justice message in the way that healthcare and education phrase their messages — we need a simple message, an elevator pitch. You so rarely hear this, even from ministers of justice.

And that’s where data comes in. That’s where we need data to say what happens if the system doesn’t support an individual who has a legal problem, what the cost is in terms of healthcare, what the cost is in terms of breakup of the family structure, what the cost is in terms of the time people take off work, and what the cost is of having litigants in person in the system. Why do we feel that legal aid should receive significantly less resources than preventative healthcare? What’s the evidence to back up this imbalance?

Sam: So we need to make the economic argument to Treasuries too, right?

Mark: Yes, a Treasury wants to hear that if it puts a pound or a dollar in, it is going to get more than a pound or a dollar out. So we need a business case for government investment in justice, but we don’t have that data. We have it anecdotally but we don’t have it at a specific level, so that the minister of justice can talk to the Treasury and say, give me this much money against this business case. How many Chief Justices do you know who can write an effective, reasoned, well-researched business case for funding? The answer in my experience is not so many.

Sam: Can you summarise what you think were the secrets of the success of the Dubai International Financial Centre Courts?

Mark: There were several factors. We used English-language common law rather than the Arabic-language civil code that’s used in other UAE courts, and this was more attractive to foreign businesses because it was what they were used to. We used judges from the most respected international common law courts. Our small claims tribunal meant that the main court could focus on the most complex cases so it improved efficiency for small and large claims. We developed a pro bono program so that smaller firms could access the courts — this was good for the morale of the lawyers who were involved as well as for the courts’ reputation for fairness.

Sam: It all sounds very people-centred, which is one of the core messages of the Task Force report.

Mark: It is. We see the courts as a public service. So we sped up cases by shifting what had been a paper-based system to an online system. This meant cases could be managed 24/7 if necessary, and it made everything more transparent for users. And we focused on how users were treated — we hired a customer service consultancy to show us how to be more customer-friendly. This meant that even if people lost their case, they were more likely to see it as fair because they had been treated with respect and attentiveness throughout the process. We had a kind of mystery shopper scheme to make sure that this approach was implemented.

Sam: And what evidence do you have of success?

Mark: We did a great deal of evaluation every year. To quote just a few examples, in 2014 80% of users awarded the Courts the maximum approval rating. The Courts were the first institution to receive five stars under Dubai’s star rating system for government departments. And the DIFC Courts became the first courts to receive the International Service Standards for Excellence, audited by the British Standards Institute.

Sam: Could you say something about your experience in bringing the different actors together around the table to get a good justice plan going?

Mark: Many courts and ministries aim to bring stakeholders together, and I think that’s a good way to disseminate information. But it doesn’t work when it comes to reform and investment. I liken it to an orchestra. It’s all well and good to bring all members of the orchestra together in a room. But the key to the orchestra is to get them to play the symphony together. And the key to the symphony is that everybody has to feel that they have an interest in what’s going on.

So in a democratic country, a conversation with the government is more likely to bear fruit if it tells them that they will get more votes if they do what you want them to do. Because what else do they care about at their core but to win re-election? It’s the nature of a democracy. So how will justice get the government re-elected? What message do you need them to understand, and what evidence is there to show it will get them more votes?

And that comes back to my earlier point that you need to have a message that connects with the people. Because if your message connects to the people, and it can be delivered through ministers, they will see the reflected glory in promoting the cause. But of course, they won’t be allowed to do that unless the Treasury is playing the first violin in the symphony, and it will only play the first violin if it sees that there’s an effective business case, that it’s not going to be challenged for profligate spending, that this is a wise investment with economic merit.

Then of course you need to engage the legal community. Legal communities generally are resistant to change, but not as much as people think. They just need to feel engaged in the process. They want to be at the table and they want their comments to be heard. Consultations are a great way to engage the profession in reform. And as changes happen, they begin to feel proud that they’ve been part of it.

And then you have the judiciary. They to my mind are the most reform-oriented. They want efficiency and access — that’s what they signed up to as judges. So they tend to be hugely supportive, but they want to be respected and listened to. And they want people to acknowledge their views and to understand that what they’re saying comes from years and years of experience of effectively being at the helm of the justice system.

And then you’ve got civil servants, who also need to be engaged and supported. So you have a network of people, and you don’t just want to be telling them what’s going on. You want them to be saying, ‘What’s the playbook? How do I create the symphony with you?’

Sam: What about in a non-democratic country like many Arab countries? How is that different?

Mark: The only difference is that the head of state’s position becomes more important, because what heads of state say generally goes, so you get a faster passage with heads of state on board. Many heads of state are keen to leave a legacy, to improve their country. So do they understand why justice could be an important part of their legacy and bring about improvement for their people? If they do, it’s easier to build that symphony.

Sam: And who do you think should be the conductor of the symphony?

Mark: That’s a very important question. The head of the change project needs to be an expert in change. They may not be able to do any of the elements — they can’t run a country, they can’t run a ministry, they can’t run a court, they can’t be a judge, they may not be a lawyer.

But what they need to be is experts in change management, because they need to bring people along, they need to listen, they need to pick up nuances and understand if people are starting to deviate, to keep everybody together in time and moving forward. So you can get all the instruments in the room, you can get the music in front of them, but they’ll do a much better job if they have a good conductor.

Sam: One thing that we often see is that in many of the countries where justice needs are highest, ministers of justice change very quickly. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Mark: Well, certainly don’t make a minister the conductor of your orchestra if they may need to leave at half-time. So if the ministerial position isn’t a highly regarded position, if it’s one that any incumbent is looking to get out of to take on a different position, then while they are a vital constituent so long as they’re in the job, you may want to have them somewhere in the back of the orchestra, because the conductor’s role is for the long term.

But one of the challenges the world has is there aren’t many really good justice conductors, who can build trust across the platform, invest over the long term, manage change effectively, and talk to everybody in a way that they understand. Maybe one of the reasons that we haven’t seen much effective judicial reform is that change agents for justice haven’t really developed in the same way that we’ve seen with change agents for education and health.

We need to make sure that when we’re looking at reform there’s someone leading the orchestra who inspires them to play together, and who mentors them to play together nicely. If you have that then reform is not difficult at all to achieve. As you know, I’ve still got the scars on my back from learning about this. But having done it, once the orchestra is playing, it’s a very beautiful thing to watch.

The Justice for All report calls for a transformation from justice systems that provide justice for the few to systems that provide justice for all. The Justice Champions of Change are individuals from around the world who have shown that change is possible when we put people at the heart of justice.

The Justice Champions of Change interview series is produced by NYU-CIC as part of its work to support the Pathfinders’ Task Force on Justice. More information is available here: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/

To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change.