Courts aren’t always best place to resolve disputes

Mediating online presents an opportunity to improve the ability of people to resolve disputes. Picture: Getty
Mediating online presents an opportunity to improve the ability of people to resolve disputes. Picture: Getty
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Mediators are embracing new technology, says Graham Boyack

IN TODAY’S world so much of what we do is increasingly done either on the telephone or online and that’s now beginning to happen with mediation too. In today’s justice system there are a number of good reasons to look at online dispute resolution. I’ll look at those reasons, how mediation online works and what needs to be done for it to happen.

So why do it?

With increases in complaints and disputes, busy courts, and recent court closures, mediating online presents an opportunity to improve the ability of people to resolve their disputes in a way which focuses on their needs and leads to the possibility of solutions satisfying both parties. There are three main reasons why using online mediation makes sense.

Firstly, convenience: people have the opportunity to participate where and when it suits them, travelling times to courts or other bodies in the justice system is eliminated and in many cases this can be significant.

Secondly, a feeling of security: for some a face-to-face meeting is something they don’t want or feel comfortable with.

Thirdly, cost: it’s not just time that can be saved. the costs of going to court can mount up whether it is through legal fees and travelling costs and for many those costs can make it unaffordable.

How does mediating online work?

The online mediation I am talking about is where a third, independent person, facilitates negotiations between people. This type of mediation is primarily voice based. Using e-mail as the primary means of communications has a tendency to make people say things in a more confrontational way which wouldn’t be the case if they were speaking to the other person.

Mediating by phone requires much more focus on the pace, tone and words used in a conversation. This is because you can’t see facial expressions and body language. It also tends to require more explanation of the process in advance.

Mediating by video link has become much easier with a number of systems available that give reliable connections where everyone involved can see each other on their own screen. The mediators exchange documents and private notes to people as part of the process.

Tailored training has now been developed to allow mediators to understand how best to utilise the technology. One of the main centres for this training is based in Hawaii which unfortunately means you don’t get to go there.

In Scotland you can resolve your dispute online, by telephone, through services operated in Edinburgh and Airdrie Sheriff Court. The types of cases vary greatly with all sorts of disputes up to a value of £5,000 dealt with.

In England and Wales approximately 10,000 court disputes are mediated by telephone and payment is based on the size of your claim and how long it is expected to resolve your dispute.

So what needs to be done to make this happen?

The Scottish Government recently launched its Digital Justice Strategy and that will provide a catalyst to getting mediation online established. It also provides an opportunity for people to access information about how to resolve their disputes online. That may mean they might not even have to consider going to court. I am keen to see further development in this area as the potential exists to resolve disputes earlier.

Whilst nearly everyone has access to a telephone, not everyone has internet access so investment in the availability of online facilities is important. To be effective there is a need for public facilities that are appropriate. That could include Citizens Advice Bureaux, courts, libraries or other community-based facilities. Such facilities must be accessible and allow for privacy.

To work such a system needs funding. The benefits include allowing people the opportunity to resolve their disputes earlier and in a way which focuses on the people involved, freeing up resources at already busy courts and allowing people to resolve their disputes in a way which suits them.

Perhaps more fundamentally as a society we need to recognise that the courts aren’t always the best places to resolve disputes.

We need to equip people with more information about how they can resolve their disputes and making other methods such as mediation an integral part of our wider justice system.

• Graham Boyack is director of the Scottish Mediation Network www.scottishmediation.org.uk