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Family Dispute Resolution (Mediation)- What Can I Expect?

As an accredited Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner (FDRP), I see many clients who feel overwhelmed by the situation they find themselves in. For some people, separation is something that they did not see coming, nor did they want it to happen. For others, separation is an inevitable outcome and something of a relief, especially if the relationship was toxic or abusive. However it occurs, separation brings about a burden of stress to all involved, both practically and emotionally. This of course is magnified when there are children involved. For some parents, basic communication between them becomes a minefield and heightened emotions get in the way of civil conversation. For these parents, mediation can be helpful as a platform to discuss their concerns with a neutral third party who can provide a safe environment for discussions.

If you have been invited to attend mediation, or you are considering initiating the process, you might be wondering what to expect. Firstly, the mediator meets with the initiating party to conduct an assessment, which involves collecting some background information and hearing what the person would like to achieve through mediation. A mediator will ask lots of different questions about issues such as mental health, family violence, relationship history, etc. This helps the mediator assess whether mediation will be a suitable process for you, and if so how best to facilitate the process. For example, you may be willing to participate in the process but the thought of sitting in the same room as the other party makes you feel sick with nerves so the mediator might arrange for the mediation to take place in separate rooms (“shuttle mediation”).

The other party will then be invited to participate in the same confidential one-on-one session with the mediator. The mediator will then need to assess that it is suitable to proceed with mediation, and if so the mediation session will be scheduled.

At the start of the session, the mediator will give you an introduction about the main points of mediation. Then each of you will be invited to discuss what you feel the issues are for discussion. Both of you will have a chance to speak uninterrupted at this point. Some people find it helpful to bring some notes along to help them remember the issues they want to discuss. The mediator will then check in to make sure they’ve understood what you’ve each said, and then write up the list of issues, or agenda items, on the whiteboard. With the mediator’s guidance, you work through each item, one by one, and offer your ideas or proposals. The mediator’s role is to help you stay on the issue at hand, to help facilitate productive communication, and to make sure the children’s best interests are being considered throughout.

The mediation model I use as an FDRP is the facilitative model. This model allows the parties to determine what the issues are to discuss, and the order in which they will be discussed. The mediator in this model is a facilitator of a discussion, and is not there to force an agreement or coerce anyone to agree with someone else’s views. In my perspective, I may be in charge of the process, but the parties are in charge of what is up for discussion.

Any agreements you reach will be noted by the mediator, so you can take a copy home with you. It’s worth noting that this is not a legal agreement at this stage, it is merely a reflection of a discussion. However, the mediator will type these agreements up into a parenting agreement, which will be considered a legal document once it is signed and dated by both parties. Further information regarding parenting plans can be found on the Attorney- General’s website.

During the mediation session, you might feel like a break, and it’s OK to ask for one. The mediator might also offer to take a break. This can be a good opportunity for the mediator to check in with each of you confidentially to see how the process is going for you.

Not everyone reaches full agreement in one session, although it can happen. In fact, many people reach agreement after two or three sessions. It’s also helpful to remember that even if no agreements have been made during a mediation session, it doesn’t mean complete failure. Many clients can have a change in perspective after the session, or they may learn more effective communication strategies in the process, allowing the co-parenting relationship to improve.