Corruption, Access to Justice, and the Future of ADR

We speak to Professor (Dr) Emilia Onyema PhD FCIArb about why she chose corruption as the topic for the upcoming Roebuck Lecture, why dispute resolution education should start early, and the highlight of her career.   

The move into academia 

Emilia entered the arbitration community over a decade into her legal career. She had originally chosen to pursue a career in law at her father’s suggestion; as the youngest daughter, she had to talk a lot at home to be heard. “He knew my character and so it worked out for me! I've only ever known about law: that's all I've had as a career,” she says. However, her career has spanned different continents, and different aspects of law. 

She qualified in Nigeria in the late 80s and started practicing as a corporate and commercial lawyer. After she came across Ciarb in the 90s, she learned about arbitration and was trained by colleagues from Kenya. 

“After about 11 years, I was tired of legal practice,” she explains. “I wanted to do something else. I took a sabbatical and went back to school to do a masters at King's College London, which allowed us to take courses in other colleges at the time, and I studied arbitration at Queen Mary University of London.” 

After becoming a Fellow of Ciarb and a committee member of the London Branch, Emilia was asked if she was available to accept arbitrator appointments. However, it was only after becoming a professor that she started sitting as a neutral, which she credits as being the right call for her. 

“By the time I got into the second year of doing the PhD, I started teaching. Suddenly, I came back to life. I realised that I'm quite happy in academia,” she says. She finished her PhD and was recruited by SOAS in 2007 to, primarily, run the arbitration programme. After that, she started getting – and accepting – offers to sit as an arbitrator. 

The highlight of Emilia’s career (so far) has been becoming a professor. “I'm very fulfilled in what I do,” she says. She finds teaching a joy, in particular sharing knowledge, and having her students challenge her thoughts. She also does a lot of professional training and enjoys helping people improve their alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practice.  

The Roebuck Lecture 

“As members of the international arbitration community we need to think of issues around access to justice and fairness, and the impact of the decisions we make,” Emilia explains. She chose corruption as her lecture subject after four incidents brought it to the forefront of her mind. The first was the ICCA keynote speech by former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Louise Arbour in 2020, which reminded the ADR community that arbitration is part of the justice delivery system in any jurisdiction. 

The second major incident is the Nigeria v P&ID case; as a Nigerian, it impacted Emilia personally. “Just thinking through the bribery, the fraud that was committed not just against Nigeria as a state, but against the citizens of Nigeria,” she says, made corruption an engaging and important topic. 

States, especially from the developing world, are increasingly waving the corruption flag as a defence. “When they're sued in commercial arbitration or even in commercial and investment litigation, they raise fraud and bribery as a defence,” she notes. Emilia is interested in the impact of states effectively admitting they have corruption. “How does that impact foreign investors that go into those jurisdictions? And how do we then interpret that in the context of the legitimate expectations of foreign investors?” she asks. 

“The fourth issue then becomes the growing number of poor people across the world. It's not just the impact of climate change and the environment, but really the impact of the activities of foreign investors and the weak regulations that we have with states,” she explains. 

The future 

International economic law and dispute settlement is a growing area of the law due to geopolitics and the growth in direct foreign investment, explains Emilia. “Every single country now attracts investments into their jurisdictions. If we move to renewables then we need to have consensus about the funding for the research, development, and engineering for renewable energy as well as a transition to a renewable economy and smart economy.” She notes that private funds fuel growth and change. 

“Now we all know that if you have an increase in business relationships, disputes are bound to follow,” Emilia continues. “It means that the more investments we have, the greater the likelihood that there will be need for settlement of those disputes.” 

She cites artificial intelligence, technology, climate change, and the environment as well as more niche areas such as water resources, air pollution, space, and smart cities engagement as growing areas within ADR. 

Additionally, Emilia foresees more inclusivity within ADR as the community becomes more diverse across the board. “I think we're going to get more diverse subject matters as well,” she continues. 

ADR awareness 

For Emilia, more needs to be done to make the general public aware of private dispute resolution and its benefits. “I think we do need to even broaden it out to not just dispute resolution but conflict resolution.” 

She believes that ADR education should start as early as high school, so children and young adults learn how to resolve differences and disputes in a less antagonistic way. She co-founded a charity that is piloting a scheme to engage with high school students across Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda to teach about ADR. “We're not restricting it to students who want to study law because ADR is interdisciplinary. Then we will go to Schools of Laws and Law faculties to talk to first- and second-year students to engage with them to help them understand what alternative dispute resolution is using case studies.” 

Most law faculties, she explains, don’t teach arbitration and the law curriculum is still structured around advocacy in national courts. The earlier students are introduced to effective dispute resolution, the better it is for the whole community. 

“Of course, it's not just lawyers that make up arbitration. There are other professionals; engineers, surveyors, and even medical doctors,” she says. ADR education should be expanded to the general population to help them understand how to resolve disputes, and the benefits of ADR practitioners. 

Professor (Dr) Emilia Onyema FCIArb teaches International Commercial Law at SOAS University of London. Emilia was awarded the CPR's 2023 Outstanding Contribution to Diversity in ADR award in recognition of her significant contribution to diversity in the field. She is qualified to practice law in Nigeria, as a Solicitor in England and Wales. She teaches international commercial arbitration and international investment law; convenes the SOAS Arbitration in Africa conference series; and leads the Arbitration in Africa biennial survey research project. She co-published the African Promise and founded the Arbitration Fund for African Students charity. In her arbitration practice, she has experience as presiding, co and sole arbitrator in international commercial arbitration. 

Ciarb’s Roebuck Lecture ‘Access to Arbitral Justice for Local Communities: Mitigating the cost of corruption and providing access to justice for local communities’ takes place on 26 June 2024, from 18:00-21.00. It is both in-person at Ciarb HQ in London and available to stream virtually. This link will provide you with more information.