The Empty Idea of Mediator Impartiality

Jonathan Crowe and Rachael Field

RF and JC ImageMediation ethics has traditionally given a central role to the notion of mediator neutrality. The idea that mediators are ethically obliged to be neutral, however, has come under increasing attack in recent decades. Numerous scholars have argued that traditional views of mediator neutrality are unrealistic and unhelpful for mediation practice.[1] This is because they overlook the humanity of the mediator and ignore the reality of power imbalances in the mediation process. It is unrealistic for mediators to be wholly neutral, because they are human beings with their own perspectives and biases. Mediator neutrality is also unhelpful to the parties, because it robs the mediator of the ability to intervene actively in the process where needed and ensure that all parties achieve meaningful self-determination.

Some authors, such as Laurence Boulle,[2] have suggested that these criticisms can be avoided by shifting the focus from mediator neutrality to mediator impartiality. It may not be realistic, the argument goes, for mediators to be entirely neutral, but they can and should aspire to be impartial between the parties. This shift from neutrality to impartiality was taken up in the work of the National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council (NADRAC) and subsequently incorporated into the National Mediator Accreditation System (NMAS) of 2015.

We argue in a recent article, however, that this shift from neutrality to impartiality is unconvincing and lacks practical efficacy.[3] There are two main reasons, in our view, why focusing on mediator impartiality does not solve the problems confronting the traditional paradigm of mediator ethics. The first is that the distinction is too technical to make a real difference in how the mediation process is understood in practice. The distinction speaks perhaps to people who are steeped in the details of mediation terminology, but not to the ordinary party who comes to mediation for assistance with managing or resolving their dispute, seeking a transparent, fair and ethical process. Indeed, for most people, neutrality and impartiality mean the same thing, with the terms often used interchangeably.

The second problem with the distinction between neutrality and impartiality is that the notion of impartiality, as defined by authors such as Boulle, still encounters many (if not all) of the challenges that beset the traditional concept of neutrality. Boulle’s identification of impartiality with fairness, we would argue, is too simplistic. Treating parties with different and complex power dynamics between them in a way that prioritises ‘even-handedness [and] objectivity’,[4] as those terms are usually understood, will favour the more powerful party, in a way that would not be allowed by a genuinely fair process. This is because such an approach will generally entail giving the parties identical or similar treatment, even where they are differently situated or face distinct challenges. The notion of impartiality, in this respect, invites a similar critique to the more traditional idea of neutrality.

It would be possible to avoid this objection to mediator impartiality by interpreting the ideas of even-handedness and objectivity in a more creative and non-traditional way. This would involve saying that mediators can be even-handed and objective even if they treat the parties differently, provided that they do this in an ethically appropriate manner. However, this way of understanding mediator impartiality is of little assistance to mediators and parties in grasping the ethical framework, unless it is supplemented with a more detailed account of when mediator interventions are ethically appropriate. The basis for such an account, we suggest, has to come from some more fundamental ethical notion, rather than from impartiality itself. The idea of mediator impartiality is therefore empty: it either reproduces the traditional problems of mediator neutrality or offers little guidance on the mediator’s ethical role.

Merely shifting the emphasis to mediator impartiality fails to solve the dilemmas posed by the concept of neutrality. A more fundamental rethinking of mediation ethics is needed if we are to avoid the shortcomings of the traditional paradigm.  We suggest in our forthcoming book, Mediation Ethics: From Theory to Practice, that the better approach is to cease to treat mediator neutrality or impartiality as a guiding value of mediation practice, instead emphasising party self-determination. This framework recognises and legitimises the ethical choices mediators routinely make in response to information deficits or power imbalances, rather than seeking to shoehorn them into a modified version of the traditional paradigm.

[1] See, for example, Rachael Field, ‘Mediation and the Art of Power (Im)balancing’ (1996) 12 Queensland University of Technology Law Journal 26; Hilary Astor, ‘Rethinking Neutrality: A Theory to Inform Practice – Part I’ (2000) 11 Australian Dispute Resolution Journal 73; Rachael Field, ‘The Theory and Practice of Neutrality in Mediation’ (2003) 22(1) Arbitrator and Mediator 79; Bernard Mayer, Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution (Jossey-Bass, 2004).

[2] Laurence Boulle, Mediation: Principles, Process, Practice (Butterworths, 1996) 19-21; Laurence Boulle, Mediation: Principles, Process, Practice (LexisNexis, 2nd ed, 2005) 30-36; Laurence Boulle, Mediation: Principles, Process, Practice (LexisNexis, 3rd ed, 2011) 71-80.

[3] Jonathan Crowe and Rachael Field, ‘The Empty Idea of Mediator Impartiality’ (2019) 29 Australasian Dispute Resolution Journal 273.

[4] Boulle, Mediation: Principles, Process, Practice (1st ed) 19.

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