Foresight paved way for a career in dispute resolution

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 February, 2010, 12:00am

Almost 20 years ago, Christopher To had the foresight to look ahead and envision Hong Kong as a regional centre for alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques, such as arbitration and mediation.

To achieve his goal, he enrolled in the City University (CityU) school of law's master of arts in arbitration and dispute resolution (MAArbDR) programme that began in 1991.

'At the time people thought I was nuts. They said, 'why go into a new area when there isn't enough business at current levels to sustain you'? They never stopped to think what they would do if property transactions and disputes suddenly dropped,' says To, who now teaches an MAArbDR course at CityU.

To is also executive director of the Construction Industry Council and former secretary-general of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC).

Ultimately, he was vindicated as the HKIAC's caseload progressively rose from 281 in 2005, to 394 in 2006, 448 in 2007, and 602 in 2008.

Although international arbitration was not at its peak when To was a student, even then he believed there were too many cases clogging up Hong Kong's courts that could be resolved through ADR. 'I thought CityU was the only place offering what I wanted and believed it would be useful, so why not take the plunge,' To says. 'It's a good investment because ADR will only grow in the foreseeable future.'

At the time, To revelled in the opportunity to learn something that deviated from the traditional common law paradigm which steered its acolytes towards litigation.

He also believes there is a social interest in developing strong local ADR expertise.

'ADR reduces risk and uncertainty in disputes. The beauty of it is, even if parties disagree, you have a greater chance of preserving relationships.

Litigation destroys relationships because it's in the public eye,' To says.

He also believes the greatest merit of arbitration and mediation is in their ability to creatively meet the needs of parties whose interests are adverse to each other without resorting to the rigid formalities and protocols of a civil procedure.

However, To contends that both non-lawyers and lawyers need ADR training, not just to capitalise on a future growth market, but to develop their thinking and resolve disputes informally.

'The programme did me and my classmates a lot of good. It helped me think outside the box,' he says.

'The key is ADR is not as confrontational as a court setting. Commercial disputes aside, it can even be used to resolve family disputes.'

Resolving differences in a non-adversarial setting helps to foster a more harmonious society by 'dealing with interpersonal issues on an interpersonal level', rather than the cold and sometimes cruel nature of a judicial proceeding. Admittedly, To experienced difficulties as he held a full-time job while he was a student.

'It was tough because I had four lectures a week from Monday to Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays.

'The challenge was being focused and productive at work, while I had to dash off to class and try to attain good grades,' To says.

As for any budding arbitrators and/or mediators considering the programme, To believes it's a good investment of time and money. 'They will learn to think outside the box; there's not just one way to resolve a dispute,' he says.

'If you work hard and lead a balanced life, you can achieve a lot in ADR because it is set to grow in our region and now is the time to enter the field because the first-comers will have an advantage in the coming years.'