Whatever happened to the National ADR Principles: A Reply by Robert Angyal SC

Robert Angyal SC has posted a detailed and thought provoking response to the most recent ADR Research Network Blog Post on the National ADR Principles – so I have posted it here on Robert’s behalf. Many thanks Robert for your engagement with the Blog! And thanks to Vesna and Teresa who also posted comments! Keep the comments coming!

Image result for image for the good news and the bad news

The post asks, “Is ADR essentially about the provision of a process which is fair, or an outcome which is fair, or both?” There are several problems with the question itself.

First, what is meant by “ADR”? To this writer, ADR means going to court because the primary dispute resolution process, mediation, has not resulted in settlement of the underlying dispute. This is because mediation is ubiquitious in modern Australian civil dispute resolution. I think, however, the author of the question meant something different by “ADR”.

The second problem with the question is this: Is it a question which calls for a description of how mediation actually is practised in Australia and an assessment whether it leads to fair results – that is, does it call for a descriptive answer? Or is it a question about how mediation should be practised in Australia – that is, does it call for a normative answer based on moral norms about how the practise of mediation should be conducted?

If the question is a normative one, it leads to two more questions: First, who laid down these moral norms, and by what authority did they do so? Second, and equally fundamental, why should we assess mediation by moral norms at all? We don’t normally assess the practice of civil dispute resolution by moral norms; no, we assess it by criteria such as efficiency, cost, access, speed, compliance with the rules of natural justice, and so on. Why should mediation be different?

The third problem with the question “Is mediation about a fair process or about a fair outcome?” is the biggest one: It assumes that mediation is fair (descriptive) or should be fair (normative). It doesn’t admit the possibility that mediation might not be about fairness in either sense. You’re saying, I know, “Hang on, of course mediation is meant to be fair; that’s why people do it rather than going to court.”

I have two sorts of bad news for you. The first bad news is that in any particular case, the question “Is mediation fair?” is unanswerable, for lots of reasons. The biggest reason is that the parties will disagree about what’s fair. That’s why they’re having a mediation in the first place. If they could agree about what’s fair, they wouldn’t need a mediation or a mediator. Given this and the fact that mediations always are conducted in private, even if a third party could find out the outcome of a particular mediation, how could they form an opinion as to whether it’s fair?

The second piece of bad news is that my empirical observation, based on mediating for 30 years, is that parties to a mediation aren’t participating in the mediation because they think it’s a fair process and/or one that will lead to a fair outcome. They’re mediating because, and mediation works because, they are worried stiff about continuing the underlying legal proceedings. They are worried because litigation is very expensive, very destructive of relationships, very time-consuming and drawn-out and – most scary of all – very unpredictable as to result, with costs usually following the very unpredictable result. Losing means you get nothing out of the proceedings except the obligation to pay not only your costs but also the winner’s costs.

So the reason they are mediating is to mitigate the huge risks inherent in conducting civil litigation. To put it bluntly: Many parties to civil litigation can’t afford to lose – but they have no way of knowing with any certainty whether they will lose or win. They are looking for a way to avoid taking the risk of losing.

Some parties are even worse off: They can’t afford to run the legal proceedings to judgment but neither can they afford to call a halt to the proceedings, because a party who discontinues proceedings almost always has to pay the costs to date of the other side. They are caught in a costs trap, from which they need to find an escape. Mediation offers hope of an escape.

What this means in practice is that fairness is not a concept that’s relevant in mediation. Typically, a party will settle at mediation if the settlement being offered to them is better than the risk-laden nightmare of continuing the underlying legal proceedings. That’s the calculus that drives mediations towards settlement in my experience. It means that a lot of cases settle on terms that might shock outsiders: Plaintiffs sacrifice their causes of action and claims for damages in exchange for being released from the obligation to pay the defendant’s costs. Defendants who could defeat the plaintiff’s claim at trial pay plaintiffs to go away – because, the defendant knows, it will cost a lot of money to defeat the plaintiff’s claim but those costs won’t be recoverable from the plaintiff. So, as long as the case can be settled for less than the defendant’s irrecoverable costs, it’s cheaper to settle than to win the case. Fairness doesn’t enter the picture.

So can we abandon questions about fairness in mediation as irrelevant? They only distract attention from difficult and important questions about mediation, such as:

  • Why does mediation work?
  • How does mediation work?
  • How can I effectively represent a client at mediation?
  • What are the ethical limits on my advocacy at mediation?

Robert Angyal SC
4 July 2021

Another interesting post from Robert is in the wings – so keep an eye out for that one!

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Rachael Field. Bookmark the permalink.

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

3 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the National ADR Principles: A Reply by Robert Angyal SC

  1. Really interesting, if somewhat cynical perspective on the question of fairness in mediation by Robert Angyal.

    I would take a different perspective and narrow my focus down to mediation in accordance to the National Mediator Accreditation System practice standards and ethics.

    The generally accepted meaning for ADR is Alternative Dispute Resolution (alternative to court) but I am with the crew who are working towards ADR meaning Appropriate Dispute Resolution. That shifts the focus from Court as the benchmark or expected approach to resolving disputes as is implied by looking at other than court as alternative and puts court where it belongs as the last resort in the continuum when people and their advisors are incapable of resolving the issues without a decision maker.

    We have an unfortunate tendency to use acronyms in our industry which is not ideal, especially if we don’t identify what the letters mean.

    In mediation we avoid assumptions in our language when we mediate and I hope most mediators have their ears tuned in to hear assumptive language and use clarifying questions to open the assumptions up to scrutiny.

    I feel that Mediation should be facilitated in accordance with the ethics established in our NMAS standards and in the case of family law mediators regulations not arbitrary moral norms. There is a huge assumption in believing that moral norms has any type of universality as morality isn’t universal. It’s a product of upbringing, religious norms and life experiences etc.

    Does the list of criteria given for assessing civil disputes really cover appropriate criteria? Those given were “efficiency, cost, access, speed, compliance with the rules of natural justice, and so on.”

    I would add effectiveness in resolving the dispute, increasing understanding and improving communication.

    If we take the definition of mediation from the NMAS Standards it is “Mediation is a process that promotes the self-determination of participants and in which participants, with the support of a mediator: (a) communicate with each other, exchange information and seek understanding, (b) identify, clarify and explore interests, issues and underlying needs, (c) consider their alternatives, (d) generate and evaluate options, (e) negotiate with each other; and (f) reach and make their own decisions.

    A mediator does not evaluate or advise on the merits of, or determine the outcome
    of, disputes. (there is a proviso that recognises the more evaluative or advisory end of the spectrum. Footnote in the standards: For a mediator using a blended process, which may involve the provision of advice see Section 10.2 of the Practice Standards)

    If we lived in the ideal world I would like to create people wouldn’t be mediating based on fear of the risks associated with litigation that they have rushed into but instead go to mediation first, share their perspective of what they need to resolve the dispute and work towards something that can be considered as acceptable by both.

    So for me a fair outcome is within the range of somewhere between the best possible outcome and the worst case scenario for both. And that they are able to work through the decision making in a respectful process where they are not coerced, bullied or pushed into a feeling that they have no other options.

    Rather than thinking about fair as being a single outcome perhaps we could think of it as an outcome that those involved can accept without regret.

    When I am training mediators I coach them not to use language like “Are you happy with the outcome?” which reminds them of their best case scenario which is likely to be closer to the other parties worst case scenario. Instead if you ask “Is that acceptable to you?” people can think about does the outcome fit within the range they believe is reasonable. Because for me the answer to the question “who decides what is fair?” should be those who have to live with the agreement reached.

    The questions asked at the end are questions that have multiple answers depending on the style of mediation. Settlement negotiation mediation may work as described but other types of civil mediation are used instead of and without any intention of going to court.

    Why does mediation work?
    How does mediation work?

    For mediation where lawyers are included in the process.

    How can I effectively represent a client at mediation?

    By empowering your client rather than speaking for them and definitely by finding out what they want rather than pushing them into what you think they can get if you push hard enough.

    What are the ethical limits on my advocacy at mediation?

    My thinking is why do lawyers think that mediation is a process where they need to be advocating rather than assisting with problem solving?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Is Fairness Relevant to Mediation? A Reply to Angyal | The Australian Dispute Resolution Research Network

  3. Pingback: Fairness and Mediation: A Contribution to the Debate | The Australian Dispute Resolution Research Network

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