My last ‘in person’ mediation session took place at the end of February 2020. At that time there was little contemplation that just a few short weeks later we would be in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. When we went into lockdown, family mediation services faced a stark ‘adapt or die’ choice. We’ve adapted and have not regretted it, having found, somewhat unexpectedly, that are some real benefits to working in this way.
Like most, before this pandemic our experience of using video calling technology was limited. Our mediation model was based on meetings being held in person, using paper flip charts which could be draped on the walls and all from a suite of rooms at our spacious offices. It worked for us and more importantly it worked for our clients and there was not any obvious demand to consider changes.
The pandemic and subsequent lockdown of course changed that and made adaptations to the norm of our mediation service a necessity. As many of you will be aware, all of the family solicitors at Prettys are dually qualified as mediators. It’s a method of dispute resolution that we are all passionate about. Of the team, I am an accredited mediator and so a particular mediation enthusiast and the thought of pausing the service until we could offer it ‘in person’ again was not an option. We had to find a way to transition our existing mediations to online mediation and to offer a new online mediation service, via video link, to new clients.
Our aim was to run an online mediation service that could offer as smooth a service as it did prior to Covid-19. We tried to think of everything to accommodate the transition to family mediation online. This included reviewing (and spending hours practising) the various video platforms available on the market; modifying our existing mediation documents/information to take into account remote working; reconsidering our safeguarding/screening policy and setting up an e-signature service to accommodate the signing of the Agreement to Mediate and other documents. We then had to consider how we might respond to all of the practical issues that might crop up for clients, ranging from technical difficulties to more practical arrangements such as having no option but for the children being in the house whilst the mediation is taking place.
What we have found most helpful is to offer clients a free of charge ‘tech check’ appointment prior to any first joint mediation session. Usually this takes place the day before a first joint mediation session and is a chance for all participants to test the technology agreed to be used in the mediation itself. In my experience, there is usually some issue which we then have the opportunity to resolve so that the participants can begin the actual mediation with reassurance that their IT works.
We’ve chosen not to be prescriptive in saying that we will offer mediation only by one particular video platform, in case the clients have a personal preference and as mediators, we want them to be as comfortable as possible in the sessions. We have, however, so far found that most participants want to use Zoom and this lends itself particularly well to mediations as there is the option of meeting/break out rooms and the share screen option means flip charts are now replaced by legible documents that can be immediately provided to participants. It also has the Zoom chat service which enables all participants to send documents which can be downloaded by the others in the meeting itself. Some clients prefer larger documents in paper format still, so we’ve posted them ahead of sessions. The beauty of a new process being that we bother to ask the clients what works best for them and then provide it, rather than make assumptions.