Justices of Peace keep the community harmonious where any dispute is speedily resolved before it ends up in court. FILE PIC

DISPUTES tend to happen almost every day. They stem from the smallest of tussles to the heaviest of confrontations.

If they are left to fester, the problems associated with them can become more damaging.

Therefore, it is advisable to nip the problem in the bud through dialogue, negotiations or mediation before they transform into full-scale legal battles.

The Penang Council of Justices of Peace (Penang JPs) is trying to help through its mediation bureau.

It is aimed at people who may not be able to afford major legal jousts and their hefty fees.

And the good news is that the aid is free.

On the other side of the coin, I believe the council aims to stay relevant since JPs are a creation by the British and are in use in certain parts of the Commonwealth.

JPs in Penang want to ensure that they remain useful as they were traditionally appointed from community and business leaders as intermediaries between the government and the people.

Their stalwarts include Datuk Seri R. Arulnasalam, who is Penang JPs president; Tan Sri Yusof Latiff, a long-time Malay community leader; and Datuk
Seri Markend Joshi, a noted personality in the Gujerati community.

Rejuvenating the role of JPs in the state took place in 2014, said the council’s indefatigable honorary secretary, Datuk Ong Seng Huat.

This was when Datuk Lim Chong Fong, who was then in private practice before being subsequently appointed judicial commissioner and then High Court judge in Penang, penned a paper on transforming the Penang Council of JPs after the government enacted the Mediation Act in 2012.

One thing led to another and soon the council began its journey of transformation when it invited professionals, especially from the legal fraternity, to provide training and talks to members and volunteers.

One of the first to be invited was Datuk Syed Ahmad Idid, a director of the Kuala Lumpur Regional Centre for Arbitration some 15 years ago, who gave insights into approaches to mediation.

Since 2015, Penang JPs had been ensuring that its members and volunteers were given the right exposure to act judiciously, starting with Penang-born lawyer Harbans Singh and supported by T. Tharumarajah, then Penang Bar chairman.

One of the latest resource persons roped in was Associate Professor Dr Noushad Ali Naseem Ameer Ali, adjunct professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, who advocated that trust and genuineness are important in mediation as the approach is not rights-based.

Since it has a huge emotional element, body language, facial expressions and other signals are key to building trust among disputants.

Penang JPs opened its doors for mediation services in April at the government-owned Kompleks Masyarakat Penyayang, where people with petty disputes may seek help on every weekday.

The response has been terrific as more than 40 volunteers are on standby to offer mediation services, said Ong, who is pleased that they had been able to resolve conflicts not only at the bureau but also in other places, like places of worship and at work.

It was found that the mediators were being sought for advice and counselling, and that litigation wasn’t even needed to resolve some of the longstanding and prickly matters.

While some lawyers see this movement as a potential threat to their business, there are others who do not see it that way.

One senior lawyer says that as the courts are congested with a long list of litigations, the avenue by Penang JPs is a welcome development as mediation is in consonance with the aspirations of the government.

Interestingly, a handful of young lawyers had also joined the voluntary mediation services.

Ong sees this as also a way for them to build networks and exercise social responsibility, especially for those in the low-income group.

A pertinent point brought up by lawyers for disputes involving family matters is that ego is always behind some of the suits where they could have easily been resolved via mediation.

For example, one lawyer in the volunteer group even suggested to a litigant to opt for mediation instead as the amount in a will had been reduced to a fraction of what it was because of legal costs.

Syed Ahmad concurs with Ong that community mediation serves as an important means to keep the community harmonious where any conflict or dispute, no matter how petty, is speedily resolved before it ends up in court.

The former High Court judge says what is being done by Penang JPs should be emulated in other states since mediators take a thorough approach in understanding both sides of the story and take the middle ground to come to a decision to satisfy both parties.

In this voluntary and alternative dispute resolution process, the mediator facilitates communication and negotiations between parties to assist them to reach a speedy and amicable agreement.

One can’t help feel that the energetic efforts of Penang JPs in taking such a bold step in promoting community mediation also stems from the proud tradition of the state’s motto of “Penang Leads”.

Now Ong intends to get Penang JPs’ help to expand this alternative dispute resolution mechanism to include the government apparatus, starting with the Department of National Unity and Integration.

It’s a logical progression. Penang Leads.

The writer is a former chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of Bernama