The pandemic has brought many changes to the world, including the area of dispute resolution. Before 2020, a family mediation would typically look like this:
Each person would meet individually with the mediator for what is called an intake. This would be done in person. During the intake, the mediator learns, from each person’s perspective, some background about the relationship and the family, what the issues are, and what the individuals wish to resolve. The mediator also learns about the goals of each person. The mediator seeks information about how the couple communicate and interact. The purpose of the meeting is for the mediator to understand the situation from each person’s perspective. This helps the mediator design the mediation process to fit the family.
The second stage of the process often involves each person gathering important information and documents about the issues to be resolved and providing those to the mediator. This stage is called “disclosure.” As an example, when a couple owns property together the mediator will ask them to provide information about the value of the property and any debts outstanding for the property. This assists the mediator in preparing calculations to help inform the discussion between the parties.
- Mediation Sessions
The next step would be to hold a mediation session with both spouses participating. Often this involved a face-to-face meeting with both people and the mediator. When needed, this stage is modified to accommodate the needs of the family. That may mean holding the meeting with each spouse in a separate room or on separate days. Mediation sessions are held as often as needed until the couple resolves all the issues they have agreed to discuss and either a final agreement is drafted, or the process is terminated.
How has 2020 changed this process?
In the blink of an eye many mediators have had to adjust their process design to provide online dispute resolution. Virtual forums for dispute resolution prior to 2020 were available but were not widely used. The changes in the world in 2020 fast tracked the concept of online dispute resolution and brought it to the forefront of dispute resolution designs.
So, what has changed?
Now, intakes are completed virtually. What does this mean? It means I meet with my clients by video conferencing technology, primarily via a platform called Zoom. This can be overwhelming for some people and intimidating. However, most people find out that they have an electronic device (smartphone, tablet, laptop etc.) which they can use with this technology. I send them a link in an email which they simply click on to join me in a virtual meeting. The sessions are still private, secure, and confidential. The purpose of the intake remains the same. We simply hold the meeting in a different type of environment. Once my clients become familiar with the video conferencing technology, they find that meeting this way has advantages. The meetings are more convenient. They do not have to travel to meet me, find my office, find parking, or have time in their schedule to drive to the meeting. Rather, the meeting is held in the convenience of their own home or space.
We continue to gather important documents from our clients. Now, rather than physically gathering those documents, we gather them electronically. Of course, our clients can still physically provide them to us if that is their preference. But otherwise, we provide them with a list of items we may need, and they forward them to us electronically, in a variety of ways. This allows people to gather documents at their own pace and convenience and send them in when it is convenient for them. Again, no travel is required and there is no need to worry about office hours.
- Mediation Sessions
These are also held by video conferencing. I provide a link to the meeting to each party and they attend from the convenience of their own home or space. When we are holding sessions together, we can all hear and see each other and engage in a discussion about the issues together. I can also show documents on a screen that everyone can see. This means I can show everyone calculations, or disclosure, or notes about plans or options being discussed. Everyone is then provided a copy of their own document after the session concludes. The technology also allows for private caucus discussions in separate breakout rooms, when needed. The virtual world has allowed people more flexibility and has made the process more accessible for many families.
If I had been asked in 2019 whether I would provide mediation services online, I most likely would have said no. Now, having worked virtually for almost one year, I would say yes. There are benefits and drawbacks but overall, it appears the benefits outweigh the negatives. I am confident that online dispute resolution is here to stay.