Welcome to Spring! In today’s blog I discuss a new and innovative process for people to resolve their issues when their marriage, or common law relationship breaks down.
This process is called “Mediation/Arbitration” (“Med/Arb“).
I shall use, as my couple, Harry and Sally. (For those who remember the wonderful movie, perhaps they could have tried Med/Arb in the conflict stages of their relationship to resolve their issues!)
This is a hybrid process which has two stages:
Stage 1: Mediation:
In this Mediation phase, if Harry and Sally are able to reach agreement on their issues, then a Separation Agreement will be prepared. However, if Harry and Sally aren’t able to reach agreement, then the Mediation will end and an Arbitration will begin. The mediator will take off her “mediator hat” and put on a new hat – her “arbitrator hat.”
Stage 2: Arbitration:
Arbitration is a formal hearing with strict rules of procedure similar to Court proceedings. Sally and Harry will each give evidence and there may be other witnesses. The arbitrator, having heard the evidence and then submissions of the parties’ lawyers, will make a formal Order at the conclusion of the hearing. This Arbitration Order is enforceable, just as Court Orders are.
A fundamental difference between Court and Arbitration is that, in court proceedings, the timetable of the parties’ matter is in the control of the courts and not in the parties’ or their lawyers’ control. In contrast, in arbitration, the parties, their lawyers and the arbitrator choose a timetable that works for them.
There are many other processes available for Harry and Sally to negotiate a Separation Agreement. These processes include mediation-only, collaborative divorce and traditional negotiation.
Having had 35 plus years’ experience as a Family Law Lawyer and Mediator, and with extensive training in these various processes, I utilize Mediation/Arbitration as one of several processes my firm offers for resolving one’s Divorce/Cohabitation breakdown.
It’s important to note that, in the Med/Arb process, there are potential red flags that Harry, Sally and their lawyers must consider when choosing their mediator/arbitrator. Their mediator/arbitrator should have – in addition to her/his expertise in Family Law, Mediation and Arbitration – training and experience in the ethical issues of this process, as follows:
The mediator will have heard many off-the-record statements from both Harry and Sally during the Mediation phase. It is incumbent on the mediator, if the Mediation ‘fails’ and Arbitration proceeds – to be able to ‘park’ her recollections of the parties’ statements, and to clear her mind of all of these statements, so as to be neutral in the Arbitration proceeding. As such, in Med/Arb, the mediator must take off her mediator ‘hat’ and replace it with her arbitrator ‘hat.’
I had the benefit of doing a Master’s in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), years after I had achieved my Law Degree. In my Master’s studies I had the opportunity and time to reflect on these serious ethical issues.
When parties are choosing who their mediator/arbitrator will be, it is important that they inquire into the mediator/arbitrator’s professional experience and training in this specialized area.
The Med/Arb process combines peaceful resolution – Mediation – plus, when needed, the ‘strong arm of the law’ – Arbitration. The result will be that – no matter what – the parties will obtain a final settlement of all issues at the conclusion of the process.
The very fact that Harry and Sally know that, if they can’t reach agreement in the Mediation phase, their process will ‘morph’ into an Arbitration process, will provide a strong impetus for them to settle their matter in the Mediation phase. This is because they know that, once the process changes to an Arbitration, the decisions about their lives will no longer be in their hands but rather in the hands of a third party, and they will no longer have control of some of the most important decisions in their lives.
The mediator/arbitrator should – in my view – be a senior family law lawyer who is highly ethical and has the ability, training and experience to conduct a principled Mediation/Arbitration. It is required that she not only knows the law applicable to the issues, but also and most importantly in the Mediation phase, she must be attuned to the needs, interests and wants of Harry and Sally.*
It is incumbent in the Mediation phase that the mediator ensures that Harry and Sally do not feel under pressure to settle any issues. The mediator must ensure that the parties are ‘relaxed’ in this phase, so that they feel free to express their wants and needs openly, and so that they do not feel ‘forced’ to agree on terms. The mediator must also ensure that there is no power imbalance between the parties or if there is, their lawyers should ‘equalize’ the power by their representation. In this regard, the mediator will “pre-screen” the parties for such issues.
Once Arbitration begins, the ‘tone’ will be entirely different. It will not be relaxed, but rather will be a formal Court-like proceeding where, at to conclusion, the arbitrator will make an Order regarding the parties’ issues. In this phase, the arbitrator must concern herself with the law and the evidence, rather than the wants, needs or interests of the parties.
These contrasting methodologies are the essential contradiction between these two processes. It is the mediator’s challenge to ensure that these two contradictory processes ‘blend’ ethically and seamlessly into one hybrid model.
Divorcing parties are using the Med/Arb process more and more to resolving their matrimonial matters. This is because, at the end of the day, there will be a final Order. As such there will be closure for the parties.
In our scenario, let’s say Harry and Sally don’t agree on the terms of a Separation Agreement. If their process is a Mediation-Only process, the parties will walk away from the Mediation with their issues unresolved.
In contrast, because Harry and Sally are using a Med/Arb process, there will be finality at the end of the day.
A wonderful benefit of using this hybrid process is that the Harry and Sally will have closure at the end of it, and they can now move on to the rest of their lives.
Also, it’s important to point out that, let’s say our protagonists agree on 90% of their issues in the Mediation phase, they will only need to litigate the remaining 10% in the Arbitration phase.
Of course, in the movie version, Harry and Sally finally reconcile on New Year’s Eve in New York and live happily ever after. Such is not our scenario today. However we hope that, having chosen to use the Mediation/Arbitration process for their divorce, Harry and Sally will reach agreement on their issues in the mediation phase, and if not, then their matter will be resolved by an Order made in the Arbitration phase. As such, they can close this chapter and move on to the rest of their lives.
I’ve written this blog for both lawyers and non-lawyers. In Med/Arb, most often, the parties will have legal representation in the room.
Please feel free to contact me, or have your lawyers contact me, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in exploring the possibility of using Mediation/Arbitration as a process for your Divorce.
Until next time!
*See my blog on: “Family Law and Divorce Matters are 90% Emotional and 10% Law”
Anne holds a BA (Honours Sociology), JD (Juris Doctor, Law Degree), Master of Laws Degree (LL.M.) in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), Advanced Training in Mediation, Arbitration and Collaborative Practice, and Certification in Collaborative Practice, as well as over 35 years’ experience in the practice of Family Law and Mediation.
© Anne E. Freed, March 2023