Relationality, ethic of care and mediation

In a very provocative and wide ranging piece, Hilary Sommerlad argues that the ethic of care originating with Carol Gilligan and developed by difference feminists since the 1990s has undermined the ethic of justice, largely through reliance on arguments that have facilitated the development of mediation and other forms of restorative justice and promoted legal pluralism: The Ethics of Relational Jurisprudence, (2014) 17 Legal Ethics 281.

Sommerlad claims that Gilligan’s ethic of care provided a language to argue for a change in ‘the dominant ideology from individualist to one that is interconnected … from a right-based focus to a focus on both care and rights/justice, from power-over to empowering’ (citing Leslie Bender, ‘Changing the Values in Tort Law’ (1990) 25 Tulsa Law Journal 759, 907). Difference feminists understood knowledge as contextual and embedded in experience and situation, and urged that legal methodologies be developed to recognise intimacy and connectedness and to permit empathic perspective taking, such as mediation, or less adversarial lawyering.

Sommerlad’s argument is grounded in a deep understanding of recent legal philosophy and history. She challenges the arguments developed by difference feminists based on Gilligan’s ethic of care for their ahistorical nature and tendency to naively romanticise community and care, failing to acknowledge that ‘care can be a most insidious form of control’.

She also condemns difference feminists’ omission in not recognising the flexible and contextual nature of much common law reasoning, and subsequently their failure to ‘engage with the contingency of law’s claimed formalism and autonomy, at the moment when it was so clearly being challenged’.

Whilst there is much value in these observations, Sommerlad’s own failings appear in her critique of the link between the ethic of care, neoliberal delegalisation and a shift to therapuetic jurisprudence that has characterised many western legal systems.  Whilst greater reliance on informal legal processes may undermine access to justice and diminish rights, Sommerlad is not able to establish mediation’s complicity in this outcome.  She relies on outdated and unsubstantiated claims that mediation ‘fails to take account of the gendered power imbalance’ and research that indicates that ‘aggressive advocacy and strict reliance on doctrine and procedure’ achieves better outcomes for women clients, at least in family law.

Mediation is no panacea, but a more nuanced and empirical appraisal of its role is required before it can be held responsible for the broader failings of the legal system. Further, whilst rights are clearly important, especially to those who have few, many will prioritise their relational connections, their emotional wellbeing and their bank balance in preference to aggressive advocacy. For some it will be more important to be empathically heard, and to listen with their whole being, and so to recognise the full humanity of the other. Mediation offers this promise. Gilligan’s ethic of care remains instructive.

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About Dr Susan Armstrong

Sue Armstrong is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, Western Sydney University, Australia. She is an accredited Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner and a collaborative practice coach. She publishes, researches and teaches about family dispute resolution.

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