System maintenance or mediating big issues?

Here is another excerpt from Chapter 12 of our recently published work: Mediation in Australia (LexisNexis, 2018):

It is a feature of the times to refer to different social phenomena as being in crisis. We read and hear about crises in the environment from deforestation to plastic pollution to space junk; crises in the conditions of over 60 million people dislocated by violence, discrimination or natural disasters; crises in democratic systems caused by corruption, authoritarianism, false facts and political apathy; crises in individuals’ sense of security, personal safety, work tenure, mental health and traditional ways of life; crises in domestic economies caused by excessive competition, tax and revenue avoidance and financialisation; crises in international customary law, treaties and conventions caused by geo-political forces and nativism; crises in reconciliation with Indigenous Australians caused by lack of constitutional or treaty recognitions; crises caused by disrupted patterns of economic ordering across national borders; and crises in wealth and income distribution and the financial dominance of a few and the poverty of the many. The legal profession too has long been said to be in crisis, and the same has been said of DR.


Whatever the validity of the crisis claims there is little doubt that fear, anxiety and depression are widespread in Australian society, and in many others. Each of the above crises, some real and pressing and others more remote and hyperbolic, is partly a function of neoliberalist economic principles and practices which have both overt and covert implications for work, costs, cultures, health and ways of life of individuals, groups, organisations and whole societies. This is well-documented in the relevant literature.

We do not, however, depict a crisis in mediation. We rather consider it as one of several possible responses to other critical events and incidents. A question we would like to start considering is whether conflict management and DR processes in general, and mediation in particular, can provide appropriate systems and procedures for the future management of the many factors of challenge, disruption and transformation being experienced — can they support the prevention, containment, management, determination or resolution of the critical problems, conflicts and disputes which global societies face? We tentatively explore this in the context of many social institutions with ‘mediating’ functions having broken down in full or part — political parties, trade unions, churches and neighbourhood communities.

In a recent DR course conducted by one of the authors a similar list of domestic and global ‘big issues’ was provided to students. The students selected homelessness in Australia as their topic and were asked to research and consider how mediation methodology might be brought to bear on the political, economic, legal and practical dimensions of addressing the reality that over 100 000 Australians sleep rough each night. The inevitable utopian idealism aside, they were constructive and creative in probing and analysing how mediation values, procedures and techniques might be adapted and applied in these areas. In particular, they emphasised mediation’s potential role in identifying relevant parties, facilitating discussions, promoting interests and priorities, establishing supportive legal infrastructures and enhancing bargaining for mutual gains. Future progress will be reported in the literature.

Mediation has some initial form in regard to major social issues. It is used in one or other of its manifestations in everything from community to political disputes and from commercial to international conflicts. It has had direct and indirect influences on peace-keeping and truth and reconciliation systems, on the emergence of practices such as collaborative law, conflict coaching, negotiation acumen, dispute prevention and nudge practices and in specialist dispute areas such as family law, workplace relations, elder law, industry bodies, consumer complaints, end-of-life decisions and higher degree supervision. Even where mediation’s influence is indirect it is arguable that its institutionalisation in the legal system and accession into mainstream thinking has made these innovations more acceptable.

It is true that mediation has influenced many areas of societal thinking and social practice, but it has also been tainted or at least compromised by some of these challenges. We have tracked some of these influences in Mediation in Australia — influences which cause mediation to be more mandatory and manipulative, more evaluative and short-term focused, and more an instrument of other objectives and less of its own normative imperatives.

Nonetheless mediation, as a form of private ordering, has long been criticised for keeping important issues away from the public gaze. In relation to the big issues, mediation as we have known it has predominantly system maintenance functions, not dissimilar to equivalent DR procedures in traditional societies. A separating couple, for example, may agree on appropriate parenting arrangements for the children without redressing, or even addressing, past issues of abuse; franchisees may make a mediated exit from a franchise system without having received substantive justice on matters of misrepresentation, wage theft and inadequate franchisor support; new migrant workers may be compensated for injuries sustained in poorly-paid manual labour without any amelioration of the conditions for other workers in this sector; and a defamation action might be resolved between a celebrity and media proprietor without consideration of the media’s power and influence in society. In these cases, mediation can provide settlements, and sometimes justice for individuals and businesses involved, without providing communitarian changes or contributing to systemic benefits. This creates predicaments of conscience for some practising mediators.

Overhead view of stethescope on top of note pad

Here there might be an apposite analogy from the field of health science. Individual ‘private health’ treatment of those suffering from malaria, lung cancer, obesity or cardiac weakness does not itself diminish or remove the causes and incidents of the diseases in question. In relation to both communicable and non-communicable illness it is only ‘public health’ systems which can address systemic causes and symptoms and bring preventative measures into place in matters such as smoking, junk food and sugary drinks. Individual ‘private’ mediations, by analogy, have symptomatic and not systemic consequences and there is as yet a limited ‘public health’ role or application of mediation.

It can be contended, in defence, that mediation and conciliation do have systemic effects where statutory agencies nudge parties towards statutory norms, applicants feel empowered and respondents commit to redeeming their wanton ways, and there are, albeit remote, demonstrative effects for those outside the mediation room. Even in individualistic societies there are communal networks which transmit outcomes, lessons and messages. Nonetheless, individual private processes cannot alone change public communal factors and we consider in our next blog post how the elements of mediation might be used to address the big issues.

We welcome your comments and responses to these thoughts.

Laurence Boulle and Rachael Field

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About Dr Rachael Field

Rachael is a Professor of Law in the Law Faculty of Bond University. Her key teaching and research interests are in legal education and dispute resolution. Rachael was awarded an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Citation in 2008 and was made an ALTC Teaching Fellow in 2010. In 2010 Rachael worked with Professors Sally Kift and Mark Israel on the development of the Threshold Learning Outcomes for Law. In 2013 Rachael and Prof Nick James published a first year law text entitled "The New Lawyer". Rachael has been a member of the First Year in Higher Education Conference organising committee since 2007 and now chairs that committee. She was awarded the 2013 Lexis Nexis Australasian Law Teachers’ Association Major Prize for Teaching Excellence and Innovation jointly with her colleague James Duffy. In 2014 Rachael was awarded an Office of Learning and Teaching national Teaching Excellence Award. Rachael has also been a member of the Women’s Legal Service, Brisbane Management Committee since 1994 and has been President of the Service since 2004. In 2010 Rachael, along with the Women's Legal Service Brisbane, was commissioned by the Federal Attorney-General to design a model of family dispute resolution for use in matters where there is a history of domestic violence. This model was implemented in 5 locations around Australia for 18 months and was evaluated by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. In 2011 and 2012 Rachael was invited by the Australian Human Rights Commission to contribute to their International Program by presenting the model to bi-lateral workshops with the All China Women's Federation. Rachael completed her PhD through the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney under the supervision of Professor Hilary Astor in 2011. Her thesis explored the notion of neutrality in mediation and offers an alternative paradigm based on professional mediator ethics. Rachael was named Queensland Women Lawyer of the Year for 2013. Research Interests • Dispute Resolution • Women and the Law • Restorative Justice • Family Law • Legal Education

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