Justice Champions of Change:
The mediators promoting justice for all in Nigerian courts
Nigerians face an estimated 25 million new legal problems each year. Only two out of ten will engage with formal institutions. The Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse was founded in 2002 as the first court connected alternative dispute resolution center in Africa. The courthouse has helped to reduce the backlog of civil cases in Lagos, the country’s most densely populated city and its economic capital. The average court case in Nigeria takes 4–10 years to conclude, but the lifespan of cases before the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse is between 3–5 months. Mediation also has societal benefits, often providing a win-win outcome for both parties, as opposed to the more contentious nature of disputes resolved through the formal court system. Fourteen Nigerian states have since duplicated the model, and many other countries in the region have piloted similar initiatives.
Director Adeyinka Aroyewun and Deputy Director Achere Cole spoke to Kimberly Brown of the Pathfinders team to share how the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse accelerates justice for all.
Kim: What led to the introduction of mediation as a means of providing access to justice in Nigeria?
Adeyinka: The Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse was established because of the congestion of the courts and the challenges faced in the normal litigation process, which was plagued by delays. Typical cases are resolved within 4 to 10 years, and in some instances, longer — and may pass from one judge to another, altogether an exhausting process. There were an overwhelmingly large number of people in Lagos that weren’t getting justice in a timely manner.
The Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse was started by the Negotiation and Conflict Management Group, founded by Kehinde Aina. Kehinde, who grew up practicing in Lagos State as a young lawyer, was frustrated with the litigation process and court system. He thought that there must be a better way to access justice than coming to the courts. And so the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse began as a public-private partnership in the Lagos State Judiciary in June 2002 with the aim of providing timely, cost-effective and user-friendly access to justice.
Kim: Can you tell us a little more about the partnership and how that came about?
Adeyinka: When it started, the judiciary provided the space for the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse to exist, and the Negotiation and Conflict Management Group provided the technical expertise in mediation, arbitration and negotiations, also known as alternative dispute resolution mechanisms or ADR. We had funding from different partners, and the services were also funded through a one-time fee structure that permitted the project to sustain itself.
Kim: Why did you place the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse within the courts?
Achere: The vision was to have the multi-door courthouse situated within the High Court of Lagos, so that when a citizen came seeking justice, there would be different options that could be chosen depending on the individual needs of the citizens and their legal problems. We wanted court users to be able choose which “door” they wanted to walk through for services to address their legal problems that best suited their individual needs and comfort level. Today, the system has matured to the point that if someone walks into the courthouse, any suitable case will be automatically routed to the multi-door courthouse for an assessment as to the best way forward with the case. But if it is not suitable for alternative dispute resolution, it will be tracked to the formal court process.
Kim: What kind of training was needed for practitioners working at the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse?
Adeyinka: We started by training mediators to ensure that there is standardization of mediation practice and arbitration. Mediation takes a different set of tools than traditional lawyering, a different lens and approach to problem solving. Helping people navigate complex problems requires a set of tools to help them effectively discuss options, solutions and eventually settle on a resolution. We now run a certified mediation training through the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse. We also ensure robust evaluation of all cases to ensure standards are maintained.
Mediators also undergo continual training to ensure that the standard practice of mediators consistently meets the expectations of citizens and Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse.
At first, getting lawyers onside was a challenge for the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse, so we set up mediation advocacy trainings for lawyers to ensure that they understood the benefits of mediation and alternative dispute resolution, thus enabling more cases to be directed to the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse.
Kim: How long did it take to stabilize the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse as an institution with all of the ongoing initiatives? How many cases have been heard to date?
Adeyinka: It took about seven or eight years because it involved a lot of groundwork. We needed to build human resource capacity and documentation capacity, as well as develop a case management system that could be recognized by the courts and give a level of legitimacy to users, who want a structured, documented process and outcome.
We have grown considerably in size. We started with two rooms and now have over twenty rooms for offices and ADR Sessions. We also have ongoing programs such as the annual Lagos Settlement Week, a week set aside by the Chief Judge of Lagos State to have selected Courts refer their ADR amenable cases to Mediation at the Multi Door Courthouse. Overall, Lagos Settlement Week is an alternative dispute resolution awareness program meant to promote public confidence in the mediation process, and it’s an opportunity for disputants to have their cases resolved for free as it is sponsored by the Lagos State Government. It is also an opportunity for the legal community to be actively involved in alternative dispute resolution promotion and education.
To date we have helped facilitate the resolution of 14,000 cases.
Kim: Can you share with us some success stories from the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse?
Adeyinka: One example was a property dispute between the former Vice President and a Managing Director of a Bank. The dispute had been in court for seventeen years, with one of the parties having to fly in repeatedly for hearings, and with the file repeatedly being handed to new judges due to transfers or retirement due to the length of the case. Finally, in its seventeenth year, the judge suggested that they take the matter to mediation though the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse. Initially the parties were not willing — they didn’t know what the multi-door courthouse was or what to expect. Because both parties had invested so much time and resources into the litigation process, there was a clear sense of hostility between them when they came to the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse. After some time, the mediator asked the lawyers to excuse them, and he took the two men, who were former friends, and sat them alone in a room with him. Both men were uneasy at first, and eventually the silence broke and they reached a settlement by evening, within one day. The two men even embraced as they were leaving and were overjoyed that they had reached a solution, even asking why they had told only found out about mediation that day, seeing as it had been so successful for them.
Achere: While we can’t give you specific details of our family disputes, the family cases that are settled through mediation are particularly successful for us, especially those involving children. Family disputes that involve children are particularly challenging because it can mean children are torn between parents or sides of the family or are out of school. Mediation helps families to navigate a peaceful settlement that prioritizes the best interest of a child, which can be a challenge for traditional litigation or long-term court processes. Seeing families find solutions that ensure children are in a stable environment and not torn between sides brings us joy. Mediation allows for this. We’ve also had family cases where marriages have been repaired through mediation, even though it wasn’t the intention of either party coming into the process. Sometimes even estranged partners leave the process reunited as husband and wife — definitely not the anticipated outcome at the beginning! In addition, the LMDC has facilitated the resolution of disputes which cut across Commercial, Criminal, Family, Real Estate, Entertainment, Intellectual Property, Oil and Gas, banking; banks have approached the LMDC to facilitate a Settlement Week process for the resolution of business disputes.
Kim: Are there costs associated with using the Lagos Multi Door Courthouse?
Achere: There are two different ways that matters can come to the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse: either walk-in or through court referral. Court referred cases are referred by Judges and Magistrates to the LMDC where the case is suitable for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). However, although we no longer charge for court referred matters, this may be revisited.
For walk-in cases it costs 10,000 Nigerian Naira, or $27 USD, for administrative fees while mediation session fees are charged based on the scale of fees which is a reasonable percentage of the claim. For those who can’t afford fees, we have pro bono forms and fee review forms to help ensure we cater to all who come to us. While our goal is to become a self-sustaining institution, the government continues to support us, but in comparison to the litigation court process the cost of mediation is far lower.
Kim: How were people convinced to embrace the concept of alternative dispute resolution?
Achere: We did a lot of advocacy. The advocacy was a continued, sustained effort with stakeholders from the judiciary, lawyers, the private sector and the general public that continues today. It includes one-on-one meetings, workshops, and sensitization efforts. But the work of sensitization is never done, especially in a place as populated as Lagos where you can find someone walking along the street who will say: “I don’t know anything about the Multi-Door Courthouse.” Our advocacy has yielded a lot of fruit, but there’s still a lot more to do.
Adeyinka: We also have road shows, were we have structured engagement with communities regarding the Lagos Multi Door Courthouse and the Lagos Settlement Week. Lagos Settlement Week has become a huge undertaking, and has been very effective in getting lawyers to see the benefits of alternative dispute resolution. We have also translated our documents to reach more of the public, and we’ve participated in promoting the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse on TV programs, social media, newsletters, and radio programs.
Kim: What are some of the reasons that the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse appeals to an average citizen?
Achere: One major thing working in our favor is our accessibility and our location — we’re located in Lagos Island and Ikeja, which are central locations and we intend to extend our services to Badagry and Lekki in the near future. Also, citizens don’t necessarily have to attend mediation with a lawyer when they want to access mediation services — they can state their case and seek guidance before or without engaging with a lawyer. Instead of being concerned about the costs or an overly burdensome process, citizens can access justice more easily through this process. Furthermore, due to the increasing need to mediate between disputants who reside at various locations, the LMDC now employs the use of online dispute resolution through Skype, WhatsApp calls, telephone calls etc. This has ensured that increasingly there are really no barriers to Mediation at the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse.
Also, the shorter time for resolving disputes makes mediation a preferable method for accessing justice over the typical litigation processes. For walk-in matters to the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse the typical case timeline is 180 days, and 90 days for matters referred from the Court. However, in Litigation, cases can be in court for a period of 10–20 years and in most cases parties become weary of resolving the dispute, time is lost, and monetary value of their claim depreciates.
Kim: What motivates you both personally to champion the transformation of justice systems in Nigeria to include Alternative Dispute Resolution?
Adeyinka: I first became involved with mediation early on in my legal career. I heard about it through the founder of the Negotiation and Conflict Management Group. I am passionate about access to justice. I love that we are making justice accessible for people, and that I see people resolve their disputes through talking to one another. I also get to teach people about mediation. I truly can’t imagine doing anything else. When I see parties hugging or shaking hands — thanking us at the courthouse — it makes me appreciate how powerful our work really is.
Achere: When I did my court attachment during my schooling at the Nigerian Law School, I was struck by the inability of disputants to be able to express themselves during court sittings, and by how the lawyer had to do all the talking in court. I decided that I would focus on creating systems for people to have access to Justice and found out about alternative dispute resolution. For me the benefits are seeing parties reach a settlement and negotiate scenarios that are best for them. I am also very passionate about teaching Mediation and its ethics — mediation is sometimes viewed as a dispute resolution process which has no specific guidelines, but it is also a profession that demands a standard of professionalism and specific principles such as confidentiality, neutrality, self-determination etc. which provides a framework that can be relied upon for Mediation in how we navigate serving the needs of citizens. I want to help build a system that people can trust in accessing justice.
Kim: What has the public reaction been to alternative dispute resolution and the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse?
Adeyinka: The work in many ways has spoken for itself. The successes recorded have helped convince people that mediation works. Over the years the experiences of friends and colleagues have helped to shape the public perception of the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse. They see that cases that have been pending for decades can get resolved in one or two mediation sessions.
Kim: What type of cases do you get at the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse?
Adeyinka: A wide range! We deal with a wide range of cases dealing with both civil and commercial cases, we have a lot of family, banking, property, contract, and tenancy cases. We’ve also seen issues relating to employment, human rights, inheritance, defamation, intellectual property, personal injury and tort.
Achere: Indeed, we have received an increasing number of Family and Matrimonial disputes recently — here we help mediate the reconciliation of spouses, child custody, child maintenance, access to the child, visitation rights, medicals, division of property and assets between the husband and wife, feeding, clothing, upkeep, school fees — most areas except for divorce which is predominantly under the purview of the court. Another area where we see a large influx of cases relates to disputes between landlords and tenants, banking disputes, and disputes regarding land ownership.
Kim: What setbacks did you encounter in setting up the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse and how did you resolve them?
Adeyinka: The first problem we had when we started related to parties not yielding to the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse [which would enable] us to intercede on matters in processes. We didn’t really have a legal framework at first, so when we would send notices on mediation parties would ignore it. Our first approach was to recruit judges of the high court to be mediation judges, who could help explain the benefits of mediation over litigation and help navigate parties out of litigation and towards the Multi-Door Courthouse. We passed the Lagos State Multi-Door Courthouse Law in 2007 in order to help clarify the legal framework, and helped develop a document that explained the rules of procedure.
As mentioned earlier, we struggled at first with the lawyers. They saw mediation as a threat to their revenue instead of an opportunity to pick up more cases. So we started engaging strategically with the five branches of the Nigerian Bar Association. We would go to their meetings and tell them about the benefits of mediation, and that there are alternatives to litigation. Over time we saw the change in lawyers, who now see mediation and alternative dispute resolution as a healthy complement to the justice system here in Lagos.
Kim: Can you share more about the people-centered approaches your team adopts?
Achere: Mediation is inherently people-centered, but we have a number of purposeful ways we try to ensure this remains a priority at the Multi-Door Courthouse, including the continued training of Mediators. We also facilitate mediation or caucus meetings off-site where the parties want to be on neutral ground and do not want to go to court or visit the Multi-Door Courthouse. Provision is also made for the elderly parties, parties that are indisposed, or parties who have a medical condition by ensuring that they have an accessible and convenient room for mediation. Children are also catered for where a parent has no access to day care and must be at mediation either for a family or business dispute. Language is also very key for effective communication and the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse believes it is crucial to dispute resolution. When we create awareness about mediation through our roadshows and distribution of fliers, we always ensure that they are also done in indigenous languages to ensure that the public understands what Mediation is all about.
Kim: What are your plans for the future?
Adeyinka: One major theme for us is expansion across Lagos in order to meet the needs of the population by bringing services closer to the people. We are looking at adopting online dispute resolution, too, particularly for international or country-wide disputes, through the development of an app for citizens to use for all types of cases. We also hope to stay true to how we started, always ensuring a high standard of service delivery. We really just hope to see that mediation and alternative dispute resolution continues to grow across Nigeria and the region — in our view, it’s one of the best ways to resolve disputes and ensure access to justice for all.
Kim: How can people learn more about the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse?
Achere: They can learn more about us via our website or follow us on social media via Facebook or Twitter to learn more about our upcoming activities. We also always welcome visitors here in Lagos and would love to show you around the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse, or at one of our Settlement Week activities!
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