Violence and domestic abuse – the need for safeguarding in family mediation

Whilst at Hampshire Mediation we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to take part in family mediation, nothing is more important than the safety of the participants. After that safety has been assured, the next priority is to ensure that everyone is able to take part in the mediation process effectively, and that requires that we take particular care that the environment is safe and is conducive to working together to find a solution to the questions that brought the participants to family mediation.

In order to ensure that safe environment, we at Hampshire Mediation have put in place a series of safeguards to help us ensure that we can provide the right environment during mediation sessions.

The first family mediation meeting between the mediator and the participant will typically be a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting, or MIAM, and this is a meeting that each participant attends alone. Part of the reason for that is that being in the meeting without the pressure of the other participant being there allows each individual to speak freely, without the need to hold anything back. The other (and more important) reason is that at this point, although each participant will have answered questions about domestic abuse – be it acts of physical violence or other damaging or inappropriate behaviour – the mediator will not have had the opportunity to speak to the participants directly to identify those cases where mediation might not be the best course, or where it would be unsafe or unfair to ask two people to attend the same meeting. It will also be the first time that the mediator will have been able to observe the participant for non-verbal communication and signals. All this information – both verbal and non-verbal – will help the mediator assess whether it is a suitable case for mediation, and whether any special measures should be put in place to ensure the safety of the participants and their ability to take part.

During the MIAM session the mediator will explain the process, the ground rules for the family mediation meetings, and the safeguards which can be put in place. The participant will also have the opportunity to discuss any misgivings that they may have about the process, as well as to tell the mediator about any history of abuse, either to themselves or to others, which the mediator should be aware of. These are private and confidential discussions and the mediator will not repeat what is said during them. If necessary, it will also be an opportunity for the mediator to suggest places or organisations through which someone who has been the victim of abuse can access help and support.

Family mediation is a voluntary process and no one should be coerced or pressurised into taking part. In fact, coercion or pressure are entirely counter-productive. This remains the case throughout the mediation process, and the mediator will constantly assess whether there is a risk that either of the participants is only taking part because they have been put under pressure to do so.

We recognise that one of the most difficult parts of family mediation is waiting for it to begin, and for some people the thought of having to sit in a waiting area with the other participant is simply too much to face. We do not believe that mediation should be a test of this nature, and so we are happy to arrange for separate waiting areas if that would make either party feel more comfortable. Similarly, we can make arrangements for people to arrive and leave at different times, or to enter and leave the building by different doors so that the first time they see each other is when they enter the room with the mediator. There are also always other people around during any mediation sessions. It may also be that we decide that it would be best if the participants do not meet at all, and so we adopt what is known as shuttle mediation with the participants in different rooms and the mediator moving between them. In some cases it may be appropriate for a second mediator to be appointed to assist with the process, and this will be discussed with each participant during their MIAM session with the lead mediator.

Simply because there is a history of domestic abuse, or even a history of domestic violence, does not in itself mean that mediation is not an option, although of course the more extreme the abuse, the less likely it will be that mediation would go ahead. It does, however, mean that the background and the issues will have to be raised and discussed so that everyone can make informed decisions about whether or not they can take part, and that appropriate arrangements can be made to make sure that they can do so safely and effectively.