From my new Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 19/10/2010.
Dial ‘M’ for mediation
By Marilyn Stowe
Despite the annual media hype about “Divorce D-Day” – the first Monday back at work after Christmas, supposedly the busiest day of the year for divorce lawyers – many of us find that this time of year, with the children back at school, is the most hectic. This time around it feels like our feet haven’t touched the ground at Stowe Family Law, and not just because of the mounting caseload.
Like other family lawyers up and down the country right now, our ears are buzzing with the magic ‘M’ word: mediation. Of course mediation isn’t new, but in the current climate, with court costs under attack from politicians and quangos, it has taken on a new relevance. I understand that from April 2011, a “suitability for mediation” interview may become compulsory for all couples considering divorce. Practitioners who are determined to plod on with an overly aggressive approach, proclaiming loudly that they will not change for anyone, may yet be thwarted.
I have also discerned shifting attitudes among clients, who are increasingly inclined towards alternative methods of dispute resolution. Financial stresses have much to do with this, I am sure, but it seems to me that in general, there is an appetite for change.
So we are preparing to roll out a full-blown mediation service from all our offices. As I write, eight of our solicitors are being trained to stop being Rottweilers at certain times of the day. Instead they are learning to be much more touchy-feely. For certain lawyers, learning to be mediators can be like learning an entirely new language. It is fortunate that so many of us have a flair for theatre, because the ability to switch roles at the drop of a hat is increasingly valuable. We are used to it, acting as we do for a wife one minute and a husband the next.
Some people are surprised to learn that I trained as a mediator some years ago now, but in truth I got off to a mixed start. I was trained by the “father of mediation”, the late great John Haynes, who came over from America for the purpose. He was very good, of course, but I made such an impression on him that after staying with us at our home for eight days, he wrote a lovely thank you note addressed “Dear Miriam…”
From there, the only way is up! Some of the more innovative settlements that I have mediated would not have been ordered by a court, but have delighted all parties. I suspect that newer mediators might think me too bossy, but does it matter if the mediation succeeds?
If I’m honest, another reason why I’m enthusiastic about our new mediation service is that I am utterly fed up with my personal bêtes noires: the husbands who come and see me for an hour, purely to conflict the entire firm from acting for their wives. Fearful of their wives’ plans, these men – and for some reason, they are usually men – take action. (Mind you, the wives don’t always help themselves. When one husband told me that his wife had my photo on their fridge attached to a fridge magnet, I didn’t know whether to be charmed or alarmed.) If mediation comes to the fore as expected, perhaps the tactic of conflicting out will fade.
Finally, to top off a busy few weeks, I have just been appointed to a newly formed Technical Board, reviewing the assessment and accreditation processes of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel. Since resigning as the first ever Chief Assessor six years ago I have been in the wilderness, but it seems like a good time to give the Family Law Panel a kick start: the Law Society did well in its recent dispute with the Legal Services Commission about family law legal aid, and I believe it is the right body to manage the improvement of standards across the profession. There is a new Chief Assessor, Stuart Barlow, of whom I have high hopes. Watch this space.