Family Mediation Week (17-21 January 2022) is an opportunity to raise awareness of family mediation and of the benefits it can bring to separating families.

Tim Bergin writes about; The Pandemic and the arrival of online Mediation.

I doubt any of us who have been providing family mediation for some time, quite saw the impact of the pandemic on family mediation? 

I do recall some years ago mediating for a couple where one of the parents was residing abroad and the other was in the same room as I was. The mediation was conducted over the phone. It presented many difficulties, not least how to record and display agreements and how to avoid the absent parent feeling rather detached from the process.

The introduction of MS Teams and Zoom offers many opportunities which did not exist before. It used to be the case that organising a time and location to mediate was not without its difficulties. It was not always possible for a parent to be available around school drop off or collection times or during work hours. Attending chambers at a time to suit everyone presented problems, especially when decisions were pressing for the parties, such as deciding which school the child should attend in the days when applications needed to be made quickly.  I often found myself offering times early in the morning or late in the day, which were not always suitable for the administration of chambers.

The arrival of the online mediation offers many benefits, not just around the arrangements for the mediation to take place but for the process itself. We are all becoming accustomed to the use of the various providers of online communications. MST in particular allows for the sharing of screens and an opportunity to record and display agreements reached. It enables the mediator to have a greater level of control over the mediation by deciding who is permitted to speak and when. I usually allow at the beginning of the mediation for each party to have a minute or two uninterrupted to express their feelings and to say what they wish to achieve through mediation. By muting the other party, any risk of interruption is avoided and both can feel they have had an opportunity to express their feelings and that they have been listened to by both the mediator and the other parent.

There is often a concern expressed by one of the parties, often a female party about being in the same room as the other party. I recall on one occasion, a husband turning up with his new partner and the impact this had on the wife. The opportunity to liaise with the parents before the mediation even begins to set out expectations and parameters gives for a smoother and less stressful situation for an anxious parent who would otherwise be turning up at the strange environment of chambers and meeting the unfamiliar mediator. They can be comforted by being in their own home surrounded by their own possessions. I have found that more relaxed parents certainly will aid the prospects of a successful mediation. 

However, online mediation is not without its drawbacks. The unwanted involvement of a third party may be difficult to control. If one of the parties suspects the other is being supported during the mediation by a new partner for example, this may well impact on their willingness to engage in the process and this is not so easy to manage as it would be when everyone is sitting in the same room.

Although mediation should be informal and transparent, if the parties do not feel engaged in the process in the way they would if they were sitting around a table with one another, it risks a feeling of detachment and marginalisation. As a mediator, when one is sitting in the same room as the parties, there is an obvious need to ensure both parties feel they are being listened to and empowered in the process. The sense one might readily pick up of a party feeling they are not being listened to may be lost over a monitor. Recently, as a lecturer I realised how easy it was for students to detach themselves from the lesson, by turning of their camera and disappearing into the background. Mediation requires the mediator to not only manage the mediation but importantly, to exercise fairness at all times and to ensure that the parties feel listened to, involved in the process and that their views and feelings carry an equal weight as the other party.

The arrival of the online mediation is here to stay! It presents opportunities to the mediation which did not exist before. At the same time however, we as mediators must be sensitive and responsive to the different dynamics which we now face. We provide a service in the hope that the parties can benefit by moving forward separately in a far less confrontational manner. This is an honourable aim and to be encouraged. Online mediation offers many more opportunities for this to happen and those families who seek the assistance of the family mediation should be made aware of the new opportunities that now exist with the emergence of the online mediation.

Stay well,

Tim Bergin

Family Barrister, Mediator & Arbitrator