Family mediation – challenges and opportunities

The past year has caused each of us to reflect on what is most important in our lives. Family. Friends. Freedom. It has also made us look forward, to life post-pandemic; and this, along with the pressures of lockdown, home-schooling, and everything else 2020 had to chuck at us, has understandably resulted in lots of couples deciding to go their separate ways.

We are living in uncertain times, which make separation and divorce an even more intimidating process. Ultimately though, most couples want the process to be amicable, dignified and focused on what is best for any children of the family. 

Mediation is a process that empowers and enables families to find their own solutions in a constructive way that is aimed at preserving co-parenting relationships.
In "normal" times, mediation would involve face-to-face meetings:
First, initial individual sessions to:-
• Ensure mediation is the right process for everybody and check for any safeguarding concerns;
• Understand the issues and what couples need from the mediator to manage the discussions; and
Then, joint sessions with the mediator, who helps the parties to:-
• Set their own agenda;
• Listen to each other's concerns; and
• Start thinking creatively about ways to sort things out.

The focus is on collaborative problem-solving. Couples are more invested in solutions that they have reached themselves, so they are more likely to work in the long term.

Mediation isn't just for divorcing couples; it can be a forum for discussions about prenuptial agreements, unmarried couples, co-parenting or alternative family arrangements. It can be used right at the beginning for couples who are thinking about separating, but haven't made a final decision. Mediation sets a constructive tone, and provides a space to talk, for example, about how to tell the children their parents are separating.

Most families are in survival mode right now, but mediation can offer couples who are struggling the time to think and talk about options. It is a bespoke process – the parties control the pace and sessions can be scheduled around work and childcare commitments.

The pandemic has inevitably forced mediation online, which brings its own challenges and opportunities. We often talk about "remote mediation", but that isn't really the right term, particularly with some couples mediating while both still living and working under the same roof.
It is obviously crucial that the practicalities are discussed right at the outset – to ensure everyone feels safe and comfortable with the process and the technology. The mediator's role is to ensure balanced discussions in a private space. Each party will be asked to ensure that they cannot be overheard during the sessions, particularly by any children.

Every family has developed their own unique coping strategies over the past year – the same can be said for online mediation. Mediators are thinking creatively about ways to support couples, whether that is with early/late sessions after the kids are in bed, or if necessary with one party logging on from the office/car to allow some privacy. Mediators are also much more conscious about what happens between sessions, after the video and audio is switched off.

For some, online mediation it is much less daunting than travelling to a face-to-face session. They can join from their own kitchen, with a cup of tea, wearing slippers. Often video calls encourage people to be more polite – we have to let each other finish our sentences before the "microphone" gets "handed over". Sessions online can be more efficient.

The mediator's role is to manage the discussions and build a bespoke process for each couple.

Mediation is not the right process for everyone. It is certainly not appropriate for any families who would need the "safety pathway" which formed part of the recommendations in the recent Family Solutions Group Report. But for others it can be a swift, cost-effective process that allows couples to make decisions that work for their families from the comfort of their own homes.

Mediation can be daunting; it takes courage and patience; but it offers things that have been in short supply over the past year – hope and positivity for the future.

This article was originally published by Today's Family Lawyer on 21/01/2021: Family mediation – challenges and opportunities in a pandemic
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