Notes from the Field

SMS System Supports Sri Lanka’s Community Mediation

September 21, 2011

After years of waiting and hoping his mother would legally transfer the portion of family land due to him, the resentment had built up. Athula, the youngest of a poor family of seven, finally decided to take his mother, Soma to court. Their relationship worsened to the point where they were no longer speaking. But when he filed the complaint with the police, they referred the dispute to a mediation board instead of the courts. Athula was beyond skeptical. When he sat down before the mediation board he said, “Don’t waste your time. Just give me a non-settlement certificate and I will take the case to court.”

SMS community mediation training

As mobile phone penetration continues to climb in Sri Lanka, SMS technology is playing a more active role in delivering information. Above, a community mediator participates in an SMS training course.

But the group of mediators was determined and unwilling to let this case go to the courts – where they said it would languish, get delayed, be left unresolved, or at worst, lost. They decided to speak to Athula’s mother directly. She said the reason she had put off transferring the land was because she wanted to collect some money to get the deeds prepared, rather than let Athula pay for it. She didn’t know she had created such resentment in Athula because they’d stopped talking. There was an emotional reconciliation between the two and the dispute was settled with Athula stating that he was happy to wait until his mother was ready to transfer the land. Four months later, Athula returned to the Mediation Board to say that his mother had presented him with the deeds to his land, and to thank the mediators for their part in healing a long and painful rift.

Although Athula’s conflict may seem small, these kinds of disputes can tie up the courts, become extremely costly, and can escalate to affect the wider community. As the formal courts in Sri Lanka are weighed down by excessive case loads and limited capacity, court cases like these routinely drag on for years. High litigation costs also make access to courts prohibitive for most Sri Lankans. It was clear that a less costly, more reactive alternative mechanism for dispute resolution was needed.

In 1985, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Justice (MoJ) commissioned a study on court delays combined with extensive research into legal systems in other countries to devise a new, non-litigative alternative to the courts. A few years later, this resulted in the creation of the first Mediation Boards – made up of non-political, volunteer mediators who facilitate voluntary settlement of minor disputes using interest-based mediation, under the administration of the Ministry of Justice. Interest-based mediation does not try to determine guilt or innocence or pass judgment on the rights or wrongs of past events. Instead, mediators guide disputing parties to the root issues of a conflict, identify the needs or interests of the parties, and finally find a solution that is acceptable to both sides – without going to court.

The first Community Mediation Boards in Sri Lanka were established in 1990. Since then, The Asia Foundation has been supporting the MoJ to create and strengthen the technical capacity of mediation trainers and the mediators themselves, and more recently, since the end of the war in May 2009, to establish mediation boards for the first time in the war-affected Northern Province and re-activate boards in the Eastern Province where the conflict had interrupted this important service to people and communities.

Currently, there are 302 mediation boards in Sri Lanka, with just over 7,000 trained mediators handling an average of 112,000 disputes every year. The mediation boards meet once a week, usually on weekends, and are required to resolve a dispute within 30 days of the board being constituted. The application process is simple, and costs less than five cents. According to a recent evaluation of the program conducted by the Foundation, 90 percent of people who had used a mediation service said that they were satisfied with the mediation process and 83 percent indicated that they would take future conflicts to the mediation boards.

Despite this success, the MoJ struggles with managing the mounds of data and information on mediation boards and as the boards became more popular, it became more difficult to track the program through the monthly paper-based reporting system in practice for the past 20 years. Under this system, the chairperson of each mediation board submitted a basic monthly report with dispute statistics, but the information was limited and not easily processed. Reports from the boards were often delayed getting to the MoJ, and occasionally, lost all together in transit.

Due to such crippling inefficiency, the Foundation, through support from the British High Commission, started working with the MoJ to explore an alternative system that would enable real-time monitoring. With mobile penetration in Sri Lanka now at 85 percent, in January this year the Foundation launched the first-ever pilot project that allows mediation board chairs to use SMS (Short Message Service) technology to transmit weekly electronic reports via mobile phones. The pilot’s success in the Western Province encouraged the MoJ to make the service available country-wide by July.

Chairs of each board were trained to send a weekly SMS to the central database on completion of a community mediation board sitting, which is held every week. The SMS is pre-formatted and includes information on the number of disputes, cases resolved, new cases received, and types of disputes, among others. The SMS training was an essential part of the project’s success, as many of these mediators are from a generation that is not particularly tech-savvy.

Many of the chairs are now reporting back that the new system is far more efficient and convenient.

“My day’s work is complete at the end of that day and I don’t have to wait a whole month to send the report and don’t have the hassle of going through a whole month of documents to do my report. I now text my report at the end of the session and it is over,” said Rev. Sulthanagoda Janananda Thero, chair of Malimbada Mediation Board. “Earlier I had to travel four to five kilometers to the post office to send the report, but now I can easily send the report through my mobile phone,” added Mr. Nithyananthan, chair of Nallur Mediation Board.

There are some who have had difficulties in using the system, largely because they have never used SMS before. Ms. Kamani, the Public Management Assistant for the Mediation Board Commission, explained that many of the chairs who are older are not familiar with using SMS and as a result are unfamiliar with the new system. Some of them still send the manual reports. In these cases, more training is needed. There are others who, despite being unfamiliar with SMS, are keen to learn the new system. For example, the chair of Deraniyagala Mediation Board purchased a mobile phone at his own cost following a visit to the Commission where he saw the database and was convinced that this was an important initiative with great potential.

As with any new system, this will require some time before it can be used to its full potential. But, in less than a year, as stated by Mr. A.K.D.D.D. Arandara, senior assistant secretary, MOJ, the success of this simple and cheap technology in making the mediation program more efficient has inspired the MoJ to consider expanding the technology to other areas of work.

Gita Sabharwal is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Sri Lanka, and Radhika Abeynaike is a program officer with the Partnerships for Security and Justice. They can be reached at gsabharwal@asiafound.org and rabeynaike@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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