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Mediation Then and Now

Fifteen or twenty years ago, when one looked at the spectrum of processes available in the nature of alternative dispute resolution, mediation formed only one of several different alternatives.  Most of the alternatives related more to the nature of a quasi-judicial proceeding; for example, mini trials, pre-trials, arbitration and neutral evaluation type proceedings.  By their nature, those proceedings were typically adversarial and rights-based. 

    When I wrote articles or gave lectures on alternative dispute resolution in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I had to define mediation and explain the process to lawyers who were largely unfamiliar with it.  I explained that unlike those adversarial type proceedings, mediation was really a form of negotiation assisted by an individual who would bring both facilitation and process to the negotiation.  The parties would not be sworn, but would be expected to tell the truth.  The framework of the process would be confidential and therefore, if unsuccessful, could not be discussed at a later time in any court proceeding.  The magic of the process was that the parties had an opportunity to speak face to face probably for the first time since their dispute arose.  In a controlled but relaxed environment, with a facilitator who understood the issues and was trained in the process, significant settlement rates could be achieved.

    Back in those days, mediation was just coming into the legal vocabulary.  Many were still making mockery of it as a form of meditation.  Others were criticizing it as a wimp mentality as opposed to a warrior mentality involved in litigation proceedings.  In many parts of the world in common law jurisdictions and in particular, in civil law jurisdictions, mediation was virtually unknown.  The global legal community was familiar with arbitration on both a domestic and an international basis.  Arbitration had been created as a creature of statute in the late nineteenth century.  There was significant familiarity with the process and parties in legal disputes tended to understand it.  How times have changed!

    Even ten or fifteen years ago I had to check with the lawyers privately in advance of a mediation to find out if they had ever attended one before and to learn what they had explained to their clients about the process.  This was not a step I took lightly because I did not want to insult, but at the same time it was more than apparent that many lawyers had never been to a mediation and really did not understand how it worked.  Many were wary of embarking on a process that they were unfamiliar with.  In those days, when I lectured on the topic, I told lawyers they could compare the process in some ways with sex.  Before anyone tried it, they had heard lots about it, knew that they wanted to try it, but were a little intimidated and embarrassed before their first time.  On the other hand, once they had experienced it, they were converts and wanted more of it.  Today that might be a politically incorrect way of describing the situation, but it certainly opened eyes and made people listen in those days.

    Mediation is now widely used in North America.  There are jurisdictions in which mediation is prescribed by statute, by rule of practice, by judicial direction, or by judicial order.  Of course, there is voluntary mediation in any type of situation when the parties choose to access the process.

    There are both mandatory and voluntary forms of mediation in litigation matters.  The experience in my jurisdiction of Ontario, Canada is that mandatory mediations achieve a level of approximately 45% success and voluntary mediations achieve settlement rates with over 80% success.  I believe these results are fairly widespread based on anecdotal information for mediators in many jurisdictions.

    Moreover, mediation has become an accepted process available to deal with almost any type of dispute.  It has particular attraction in cases where parties have a dispute, but really need to continue doing business together.  For example, this would be the case in construction projects, supply agreements, corporate workplaces, shareholder and partnership disputes and so on.  But even in one-off relationships such as personal injury, sexual harassment, or even estate matters, mediation has proven itself to be the process of choice.

    Why has mediation achieved such levels of success in such a relatively short time?  There are certain aspects to this process that make it highly attractive.  Firstly, it is very quick.  Secondly, the parties agree on a mediator and fix a date.  Thirdly the matter proceeds on that date on a fairly simplified brief.  Mediators do not double book or have long lists as is so common in court matters.  As a result of the timing expediency, costs are cut drastically by comparison with other legal proceedings.  For example, even by comparison with arbitration, there is firstly, no arbitrator to pay.  Secondly, there is no lengthy hearing and calling of evidence, witnesses and other such formalities.  Thirdly, mediations can be conducted without lawyers by the parties with the mediator alone, or with counsel or other assistance.  For the most part in my experience, mediations involve the principals in the dispute along with their lawyers.  Fourthly, while there are both rights-based and interest-based mediations, one of the really novel aspects of mediation is to look at the interests of the parties rather than their legal rights.  By cutting through the legal rights formalities and the remedies mentality, the parties are focused on their interests and what really matters is finding a resolution.  Fifthly, the parties are the authors of their settlement and as a result, enforcement is virtually never a problem.  Compare this with the difficulties which often arise after arbitral awards are made and have to be enforced in a court.  This is a particularly serious problem in international arbitration and much law has developed at the judicial level internationally just dealing with issues of enforcement of arbitral awards.  Where the parties have a direct hand in reaching the agreement and not having it imposed upon them, they are keen to perform its terms as quickly as possible in order to implement the settlement.

    For all of these reasons and many others, the acceptability level of mediation has grown rapidly in North America.  It is used widely in various forms throughout Canada and the United States and has a continuing growth throughout Europe, South America and other parts of the world.

    Indeed now when we look at alternative forms of dispute resolution, we find a substantially increased list.  This list includes terms such as facilitation, conciliation, med-arb, arb-med, deal mediation, collaborative law and circle process.

    In my submission, all of these processes are really processes which involve mediation in one fashion or another.  Some argue that facilitation and conciliation are really just other terms for mediation, sometimes in the international setting.  The concepts of med-arb and arb-med, have developed substantially over the last ten years and when carried out properly, are really separate processes which have in common the fact that one person may be involved as the neutral in both processes.

    In deal mediation, there is no existing litigation between the parties and there may or may not be counsel involved.  Typically, the parties are connected through some commercial agreement in which there is a dispute, or they may recognize the need to negotiate a new agreement.  A typical case would involve 50-50 shareholders in a company who have reached a deadlock on an important issue and need assistance to overcome the problem while they continue to operate the company.

    In collaborative law, the parties and their lawyers sign an agreement that they will negotiate in good faith and not undertake legal proceedings in any case.  What really exists here is a mediation where the two lawyers are essentially the mediators and their clients are the negotiating parties. 

    Circle process originated with the aboriginal peoples of North America.  In this type of process, typically, an elder was the neutral who led the discussion.  Because often more than two persons were involved, the parties actually sat around in a circle.  Many mediations also take place around a circular table.  The reason for this is to establish equality amongst all participants with no one at the head of the table or in a position of power one over the other.  This process has now found its way into criminal sentencing matters and various forms of civil dispute resolution which may involve estate disputes, corporate workplace disputes, or ratepayer municipal disputes.

    It is my observation, and my submission that mediation has been one of the most rapidly growing processes known in the evolution of legal history and more particularly, settlement of legal disputes.  These numerous variations, in my submission, are evidence of successful spin-offs from the fundamental concept of interest-based mediation.

    If it has taken 500 years for our legal rules of law to develop through the judicial systems, it has probably taken only 500 weeks for the legal community to accept and build upon mediation as an interest-based dispute resolution process. 

    It is said that the law moves slowly, but it has also been recognized in recent times that lawyers are a fast read.  Indeed, how swiftly we have moved to accept and promote mediation, both domestically and internationally.


Paul Jacobs, Q.C., C.Med., C.Arb.

April 25, 2007

1,545 words

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