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Mediation is one of the great mysteries of the law. Senior judges frequently order litigants to leave court and find an alternative way of resolving their disputes. But those same judges have no idea how mediation works. The process simply didn't exist when they practised at the Bar.

Journalists, too, complain that they are excluded from mediation. That is why it is such a popular way of settling commercial disputes. Unlike litigation, which is largely public, mediation is always private.

But not so private that I cannot tell you how it works. Not only have I watched a mediation session from start to finish, I can disclose to Standpoint readers that I am now an accredited mediator.

Although both mediation and arbitration are types of alternative dispute resolution, there is a crucial difference. An arbitrator listens to the arguments and issues a ruling that both sides have agreed, in advance, to observe. It can be enforced, if necessary, by the courts. 

This process is used by bodies such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which decides disputes in accordance with Islamic law. Because the tribunal's rulings are enforceable under the Arbitration Act, there are concerns that vulnerable parties may feel under pressure to accept a system that may deprive them of rights they would enjoy under English law.

Mediators cannot deliver enforceable rulings. Instead, they try to help the parties reach a compromise that is acceptable to all sides. All that a mediator needs to resolve a simple dispute is three rooms: a base for each of the parties and a third where the two sides can meet. 

For the mediation I attended last year, the parties had booked rooms at an Oxford graduate college. My first mistake was to send the mediator in completely the wrong direction by misreading a sign that said MEDITATION.

It is normal practice for the mediator to start by inviting both parties and their lawyers into the same room, albeit on opposite sides of the table. The mediator will explain that he or she is not an arbitrator. It is the mediator's job to help the parties to settle their own dispute by shuttling between the two sides. What's remarkable is how often the process works.

The case I observed was an employment dispute in which each side was claiming money from the other. During the course of the day, one side backed down and, after a series of offers, eventually agreed to pay the other side a substantial sum. But not quite enough. When the payer's final offer was rejected during the evening, the man who'd agreed to make a payment put on his coat and stormed off.

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John Sturrock
March 27th, 2010
7:03 AM
It is very helpful and encouraging to read about mediation in this informed way. It might also be helpful for readers to be aware that it is probably quite unusual for mediation to start with an invitation to both parties to address each other from opposite sides of a table. Very often, much work will have been done beforehand in the lead up to the day of mediation, preparing all those taking part to make best use of the day. On the day itself, many experienced mediators will meet privately with the parties first so that when they meet together they - and the mediator - are well prepared for that meeting and can make best use of the time. Mediation is a very flexible process and parties should expect the mediator to be looking for thoughtful and constructive ways to engage them throughout.

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