A Wellington lawyer and two high-profile colleagues have opened a mediation chambers in Singapore.
Geoff Sharp, British QC Bill Wood and Singaporean Lim Tat are mediators and have all featured in Who’s Who Legal.
Together, the trio have more than 50 years’ experience in mediation and have all spread their work from New Zealand to the United Kingdom and the Asia-Pacific region.
The new chambers is called Maxwell Mediators and essentially brings three lawyers from three jurisdictions under the same roof.
It’s based at the Maxwell Chambers suites where international mediations take place in the city-state.
“It’s a state of the art facility. Any arbitration or mediation in Singapore is generally done at Maxwell Chambers; it’s very advanced in its use of technology,” Mr Sharp says.
As he explains, a lot has evolved in mediation and arbitration in Singapore, including the introduction of the Mediation Act 2017.
“We’re only interested in the mediation side but where arbitration goes, mediation is often there as well because a lot of matters that are being arbitrated will eventually cross over to mediation in the journey towards an outcome.”
The Singapore Mediation Act
Mr Sharp says Singapore’s Mediation Act has opened the gates for foreign mediators to work there as long as they’re certified.
“We can work there without breaching the legal profession’s rules in relation to the practice of law. Mediating is not considered practising law in Singapore so it is not regulated to the same extent.”
He says Singapore promotes itself as the Asia-Pacific dispute resolution centre for both commercial litigation, arbitration and mediation.
“It’s an easy place to access overnight from New Zealand or Australia, and work the next day as there is only a four-hour time difference – so jet lag isn’t really an issue.”
Mr Sharp says one of the reasons they chose Singapore was because increasingly, Indian, Russian and Chinese parties want to resolve their disputes in the East rather than the West. He says China’s Belt and Road Initiative – which promotes closer ties between countries through development-led trade growth – also means there’ll be far more dispute resolution in the region over the coming decade.
“Singapore is challenging the traditional centres for dispute resolution. I had an Iranian mediation a while ago and the only place the Iranians could get visas to come and mediate was either the United Arab Emirates or Singapore. So the Singapore visa process is comparatively easy. The dispute had nothing to do with Singapore but the Iranians only had a choice of two places where the mediation could take place.”
Singapore also has geographical and political infrastructure that can accommodate mediations and is considered cost effective, he adds.
The Singapore Mediation Convention
Once a mediation is over and an outcome has been reached, that outcome has to be recognised as a legally binding outcome.
You might wonder how that happens when the parties are from different jurisdictions?
“When the parties get a successful outcome to a mediation, it will normally be written up in a settlement agreement or deed. It’s a contract that can then be enforced, but like any contract there can be difficulties in enforcement by local courts,” Mr Sharp says.
For example, if an Australian party mediates with an Iranian party, how does the Australian party obtain the money that the Iranians have agreed to pay?
Mr Sharp says this is what the new Singapore Convention is designed to address when it is launched in August.
“So, mediated cross-border agreements can now be enforced in the same way that arbitration awards can be enforced by way of the New York Convention. Essentially, the Singapore Mediation Convention is very similar to the New York Convention for arbitration.
“It will only increase the attraction of Singapore as an international hub for mediation.
“It will be incredibly useful and effective for international traders in that they get access to cost-effective dispute resolution through the mediation process. For example, I was involved in a mediation a while back that included a dispute between a New Zealand company and a Chinese company. It simply wasn’t practical for the New Zealand company to launch proceedings in China. It just didn’t make any sense economically to try and navigate a way through the problem that way. They also wanted to keep the commercial relationship,” he says.
Work before mediation begins matters
These days modern mediation is a process rather than a single event, and a lot of the pre-mediation work before the parties meet is online with the parties either individually or collectively. So there’ll be emails, video conferencing using technology such as Zoom and phone calls.
“There can literally be hundreds of emails exchanged, back and forth before we actually all meet face-to-face. The point of it is to get the parties to a stage in the dispute so that when they do meet, we’ve got the best likelihood of moving quickly into productive discussions and getting an outcome.
“It’s about hitting the ground running when we get to Singapore because often people will fly in for two or three days only and we’ve got to make progress,” Mr Sharp says.
Another potential challenge is being able to negotiate through a common language.
But one of the unique benefits of using Maxwell Mediators is that Lim Tat speaks Mandarin.
“The last mediation I was involved with in Singapore was with Chinese speaking parties and so Lim Tat and I co-mediated. Tat spoke Mandarin and I spoke English. It’s a much better way of running a mediation than using an interpreter. Tat can speak a number of languages,” he says.
So with regulations now favouring foreign mediators in Singapore, it’ll be interesting to see how many other chambers sprout up there in the future.