Mediating Through Pandemic

Zoom. As a Gen Xer, this is a word that conjures up images of the Road Runner, Speedy Gonzales or that song from the early 80s, apparently by Fat Larry’s Band (check it out here). But the Zoom I’m referring to holds much more significance in the current crisis and it’s the relevant version to today’s article. Read on!

Mediation is a key pillar of the family law system. When referring to mediation in parenting disputes, it is often badged as Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) and considered mandatory before court proceedings can commence. When referring to financial disputes, court-managed conciliation conferences or private mediations are also often compulsory.

Traditional forms of mediation often involve the parties in dispute, the mediator and the parties’ lawyers (except in FDR) physically gathering in the same building, if not the same room. As of mid-March, gatherings of 5 to 10 people were only allowed for weddings and funerals. Mediation usually takes longer than either of these events and certainly more than a 30-minute haircut. So, how does the system cope during a time of banned gatherings and social distancing?

Virtually, of course.

Like the rest of the world, even the law is having to adapt to new realities. We’ve transitioned to conducting mediations by videoconference.

Last week, we participated in an online mediation which was conducted through the booming videoconferencing platform Zoom. This was no loungeroom karaoke session. The case was a complex financial dispute over substantial assets. The mediator was a former Family Court judge and the cast included QCs, solicitors and of course the parties themselves – a total headcount of 9.

A few days prior to the scheduled date, the COVID-related restrictions became tighter. Our mediator took the bull by the horns and suggested that the mediation (booked months ago at a CBD venue) be transitioned online. With some trepidation, we were in agreeance. Fortunately, the NBN held up and we weren’t cursed by technical glitches. Perhaps disappointingly, there were no cameo appearances by young children or pets.

The process of the virtual mediation was almost identical to the real world. Through Zoom, our mediation began with a joint session with all participants were in the same ‘room’. Where necessary, parties and their advisors were placed into private breakout rooms so that confidential discussions could take place. The mediator moved between these rooms, cajoling and nudging both sides towards a settlement. The barristers also had their own private conversations as negotiations proceeded.

During the weeks or months to come, this sort of virtual mediation will become the norm. It’s different but it won’t be unusual. Mediation will continue to provide an excellent opportunity to resolve disputes without going to court and clients will be supported in moving forward with outcomes they’ve agreed upon.

At Bayside Family Law Solutions, we’re ready and able to facilitate mediations. We’ve just got that Zoom song stuck in our heads! Contact us here.

* Bayside Family Law Solutions wish to acknowledge the life and work of Stephen Thackray, former Mediator and Chief Judge of WA’s family court. Vale, Stephen.

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