What comes after neutrality in mediation ethics?

impartiality

This post previews Rachael Field and Jonathan Crowe’s forthcoming book, Mediation Ethics: From Theory to Practice, to be published next year by Edward Elgar. The book analyses the shortcomings of current neutrality-centred approaches to mediation ethics and seeks to answer the question of what might replace them.

Mediation is becoming more and more prominent internationally as a key form of dispute resolution for legal and other disputes. In some jurisdictions, participating in mediation is a compulsory pre-filing requirement in particular kinds of legal matters. Many benefits have been claimed for mediation as a mode of resolving disputes, including its informality, flexibility, less adversarial nature and focus on the parties and their interests. The growth of this form of dispute resolution has produced a considerable academic literature, but the theoretical foundations of mediation ethics have been relatively neglected.

Discussions of mediation ethics have traditionally focused heavily on the notions of mediator neutrality or impartiality. However, this focus has been criticised in recent decades for being unrealistic and overlooking the power dynamics between the parties. There is now a significant body of academic literature questioning whether mediators can ever truly be neutral and asking whether the concept of neutrality serves to mask the mediator’s actual power and influence. A number of authors have argued that it can be beneficial for vulnerable parties if mediators are prepared to play a more proactive role in appropriate cases.

The centrality of neutrality in mediation ethics, then, has increasingly been questioned and undermined. There is, however, a lack of consensus on what should replace it. The question is pressing given both the increasing reliance on mediation by domestic legal systems and a growing perception of mediation as an emerging profession. A traditional hallmark of a profession is its ability to self-regulate by applying communal standards of conduct. The idea of mediation as a profession therefore requires the mediation community to be able to articulate its core ethical standards. What, then, comes after neutrality? Can the concept be modified in response to these concerns or should mediation ethics have a different focus?

The present book offers a response to these questions. It develops a new theory of mediation ethics that emphasises the nature of mediation as a relational process. We argue that the focus of mediation ethics should move away from the untenable notions of neutrality and impartiality and towards a focus on enabling party self-determination. We supplement this focus with a view of mediation ethics as emerging dynamically from the efforts of mediators to respond to the needs of the parties. This provides the basis for a new picture of the mediation community as a community of practice with its own internal standards of excellence. We build on this theory to present a vision of what it means to think about mediation as a profession.

Chapter 1 opens the book by introducing the current paradigm of mediation practice, discussing the most commonly employed models of mediation and the extent to which they assume mediator neutrality or impartiality. Chapter 2 gives an overview of the historical development of codes of meditator conduct in the United States and elsewhere, showing how the facilitative model of mediation, with its ideals of neutrality and party self-determination, serves as an implicit yardstick for many forms of mediation practice. Chapter 3 then discusses the ideals of neutrality and party self-determination in more detail, examining how these notions are understood in the mediation literature, and considering the interaction between them.

Chapter 4 critically examines the notion of mediator neutrality, concluding that the dominant neutrality-centred approach to mediator ethics is at odds with the realities of mediation practice and is therefore untenable. In particular, the demands of neutrality place mediators in a position where they are unable to respond to the needs of individual parties without stepping outside the ethical boundaries of their role. Chapter 5 further problematises existing approaches to mediation ethics by considering the ways in which the relative informality of mediation may disadvantage inexperienced or vulnerable participants by requiring them to negotiate an unfamiliar genre of discourse. This provides the springboard for the new model of mediation ethics outlined in the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 6 introduces a new framework for mediation ethics that abandons the traditional emphasis on neutrality in favour of a focus on supporting party self-determination. The primary role of party self-determination in this new framework is supported by a focus on informed consent and an ethos of professionalism. Chapter 7 further operationalises this new ethical framework by offering a series of ethical guidelines that mediators can use to apply the framework in their practice. We argue for a contextual and relational conception of mediation ethics that is not rule-oriented, but encourages mediators to form appropriate and considered judgments in response to ethical challenges.

Chapter 8 then builds on this ethical framework to advance a conception of mediation as a professional community. We argue that mediation ethics is best understood as an evolving body of standards emerging over time by a process of consensus, rather than a set of rules or principles imposed from above. This picture of ethics is well suited to mediation due to its relationality and focus on the parties and their interests. The key feature of mediation, on this view, is not that the mediator is neutral or impartial, but rather that the parties are supported to achieve genuinely self-determined outcomes. This offers a more tenable basis for mediation ethics than the traditional emphasis on neutrality.

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About Jonathan Crowe

Jonathan Crowe is Professor of Law at Bond University. His research explores the philosophical relationship between law and ethics, looking at issues such as the nature and foundations of legal obligation and the role of ethics in legal reasoning.

One thought on “What comes after neutrality in mediation ethics?

  1. The focus of the book on the role of mediator neutrality and impartiality and how the concepts intersect with the notion of self-determination is an important one. It may be worth having a look at Kenneth Cloke’s notion of omnipartiality as another way to deal with this mediator conundrum

    Liked by 1 person

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