About Dr Lola Akin Ojelabi

Dr Akin Ojelabi is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law, La Trobe University. Her research interests are in the fields of conflict resolution including alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and international law. Her ADR research focuses on issues of fairness and justice, in particular, access to justice for vulnerable/disadvantaged citizens, process design, and culture. In the field of international law, her interest is in the role of international institutions, particularly the United Nations, in the resolution of disputes and how international law principles promote peace and justice globally.

Researcher Profile: Meet Rebecca Edwards

Rebecca EdwardsAbout Rebecca

Rebecca Edwards is currently completing her PhD at La Trobe Law School, Bendigo. Rebecca has been employed on a sessional basis in the School of Law for the last 9 years teaching a large number and broad range of subjects including Dispute Resolution. Prior to this work, Rebecca practiced as a lawyer for over 10 years in rural and regional Australia, working predominantly for legal aid clients (both as a private solicitor and as an employee of Victoria Legal Aid), as well as a two year period working of the Kimberly Land Council as a Native Title Lawyer in Broome, WA, and a 3 month stretch as a volunteer legal analyst at the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda based in Arusha, Tanzania. Rebecca now balances work and study with family life with her two primary school aged children, a number of board roles and the running of a small farm where the family raise small-scale free-range, grass-fed, ethically raised pork, lamb and beef and duck eggs.

Rebecca’s research

Consistent with its philosophy to support unrepresented litigants, in June 2009 the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (“VCAT”) implemented a pilot strategy in mandated mediations involving an unrepresented litigant and a mediator who is not a Tribunal member (known as a panel mediator). The strategy was to provide parties in these mediations with a cooling off period of two business days, enabling them to withdraw from a meditated agreement without penalty.

Through the use of electronic surveys of mediators and telephone interviews with disputants, Rebecca is attempting to discover whether VCAT’s innovation actually does provide support to unrepresented litigants. Her two main research questions are:

  • whether the unusual and innovative provision of a cooling off period following a mediation is utilised by unrepresented disputants (i.e. do disputants actually seek advice about their mediated agreement subsequent to the mediation?)
  • whether the provision of a cooling off period following a mediation empowers unrepresented disputants (i.e. regardless of whether disputants speak to anyone about the mediated outcome, do they feel better about the outcome knowing that they can withdraw from it without penalty for a certain period of time)

The research is currently at the stage of analysing the data with final write up expected later this year.

 Papers and presentations

Rebecca first presented a draft paper on her research at the ADR roundtable in Sydney in September 2016. A more up-to-date paper was presented at the Asia Pacific Mediation Forum’s Conference, in Lombok, Indonesia in February 2016. With luck and hard work, a solid draft of the thesis is expected to be completed by the end of this year.


DR Researcher Profile: Dr Olivia Rundle

Dr Olivia Rundle, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania

Olivia is a full time academic employed to research, teach and contribute to administration and community engagement. She finds research the most satisfying part of her job and enjoys sharing her knowledge gained from her research with her students (both undergraduate and research higher degree students), fellow researchers, university colleagues and the broader community.

 Why did you become interested in the dispute resolution field?

My interest was first sparked by a “baptism of fire” as a baby lawyer, when I found myself representing a client in the newly created “conciliation conference” process at the Magistrates Court. I had absolutely no idea what my role should be or what to expect from the conciliator. I had observed some mediations at the Supreme Court, but apart from that I had received no training at all in dispute resolution processes other than making submissions in court room advocacy. I don’t think I had even been formally educated in negotiation skills, let alone theory. My style of representation ended up being directed by a combination of my training as a spokesperson for my client in court and my open, conciliatory and trusting (also young and naïve) personality. My client was not disadvantaged by my openness, as the information shared was going to be revealed in any event (if it hadn’t already), but I felt very embarrassed when after I had made my “opening statement” the defendant’s lawyer merely said “I am instructed not to say anything”, and refused to engage with the process. There really wasn’t anything the conciliator could do about that. There was plenty of scope for reflection on that experience! I took myself along to be trained as a mediator. Eventually my interests in mediation, particularly its role within the formal justice system and the lawyers’ perspective and role within it, led to my PhD investigation of the Supreme Court of Tasmania’s mediation programme. In particular, I inquired about the perspectives, practices and roles taken by lawyers within that process. This topic continues to fascinate me.

 What is your particular area of dispute resolution research interest?

Legal practitioners and dispute resolution, including the ironically “adversarial” attitudes that the dispute resolution and legal professions often have towards one another (despite so many legal professionals practising as DR professionals). I have an enduring curiosity about what motivates lawyers to approach dispute resolution in the ways that they do. There is so much complexity there – including the professional identities and obligations of the participants.

 Whose research has influenced you? Why/How?

Professor Julie Macfarlane came to a National Mediation Conference during my PhD process and she had just published her book The New Lawyer. She went out of her way to be welcoming and supportive of me as a baby researcher, and this made a big impression on me. Of course, her work is so important and influential in the area of lawyers in dispute resolution, that I cannot help being influenced by it. She was also explicitly encouraging of me as an empirical researcher. I am hoping to make good on that with new projects in the next year or so! Other international names that spring to mind as having an influence (by being read and cited a lot) are Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Judith Resnik, Dame Hazel Genn, and Bobbie McAdoo.

 Closer to home I think that the work of Hilary Astor, Laurence Boulle, and Nadja Alexander have provided a solid foundation of theoretical understanding upon which my work has been based. My close collaborator Assoc Prof Samantha Hardy continues to influence me with her enthusiasm, “can do” attitude and willingness to maintain a list of “things to do” that neither of us can hope to achieve in ten lifetimes! Sam stepped in as a mentor for me when I was floundering with my PhD work. We eventually built upon the ideas that flowed from our conversations in our book Mediation for Lawyers. I think that our joint projects ever since demonstrate the benefits of being generous to someone who is emerging in your field – we have an egalitarian and honest working relationship that means we continue to push one another to produce good work.

 What dispute resolution research are you involved in at the moment?

My second area of particular dispute resolution research interest is in ways of improving dispute resolution practice. In particular, how to resolve ethical dilemmas, competing underlying values, and how to overcome our own unconscious biases that are there simply because we are human and are limited by our own life experience! My current research project, which has taken over my sabbatical this last six months, is inspired by the last of these. I am working on a co-authored book that will be a resource for any professional who works with people (yes, that broad!). Our target audience includes mediators and lawyers and the book will have specific advice for them. The book draws together social science and legal resources about the life experiences, legal treatment and conflict experiences of people of minority sexuality (gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual), sex (intersex) and gender (transgender, gender queer). We focus on individuals, couple relationships and parenting. Researching and writing this has been one of my most challenging projects to date and I have learnt so much. I am now getting excited about the difference that I hope the book will make for professionals and their clients, by raising awareness of the pervasiveness of cisgenderism, heterosexism and biologism and how these assumptions are inappropriate for many people. The project idea came from some research that Samantha Hardy undertook which found that among her small sample many mediators interviewed thought that they provided a great service to their clients of minority sexuality, yet demonstrated attitudes that suggested they had not. Also, the clients who were involved reported low satisfaction with the services that they had received. This demonstrated a need for better understanding among the profession. The book has been a long time coming, but I hope that it will be worth it!

 Where would you like to take your dispute resolution research work over the next ten years?

“After the book” I want to return to my focus on lawyers in dispute resolution and undertake more empirical studies to identify the drivers of lawyers’ behaviour in dispute resolution processes. I hope that over the next decade I will make contributions that lead to improvement in the field, by supporting professionals who work with clients in connection with their conflict. This includes legal practitioners, mediators, conflict coaches, and managers. Greater inter-professional understanding, critical analysis of practice, and practical suggestions are all contributions that we can make as researchers.

 Another goal that I have is to provide support for emerging dispute resolution researchers, both informally and formally as a supervisor. I am by no means a “senior” in the field, but I believe that we should step up out of our comfort zone early in our career and be accessible and genuinely supportive of others. This is how we will surround ourselves with colleagues who are prepared to give us rigorous yet kind feedback and who we truly admire. This is why I am so committed to being part of the Australian Dispute Resolution Network.

 What advice do you have for emerging dispute resolution researchers?

Tell people when you find their work helpful, ask them those silly questions, go along to conferences and other gatherings of people who research in dispute resolution. The people you meet when you are a baby researcher will become your mentors, friends, colleagues and collaborators.


The ‘fairness fairy’ in mediation: mediators, parties or lawyers?

Who bears the responsibility for fairness in mediation?

It is generally accepted that every dispute resolution process should have fairness as one of its goals and that there are several theories of fairness: procedural, substantive, restorative, informational, retributive, distributive etc. While mediation might not be designed to achieve all of these ideas of fairness, there is agreement that mediators are responsible for procedural fairness. This requires ensuring that parties are given the opportunity to speak and to be heard, and in addition, the opportunity to negotiate on the basis of informed consent (cl 9 NMAS Practice standards, 2012). As such, it is arguable that mediators are informational ‘fairness fairies’ in that they are required to support the parties to reach agreements on the basis of informed consent (cl 9.1 NMAS Practice Standards, 2012).

However, mediators are generally not viewed as bearing responsibility for substantive fairness: they are not substantive ‘fairness fairies’. They, on the other hand, are to support a party to assess the ‘feasibility and practicality’ of proposed agreements ‘in accordance with the participant’s own subjective criteria of fairness’ (cl 9.7 NMAS Practice Standards, 2012).The responsibility for achieving fairness thus lies with the parties. They are to satisfy themselves that they have achieved, what to them, is fair in the circumstances of their dispute. In doing this, they are supported by the mediator who is not to pressure them into any form of agreement. Parties are thus, the substantive ‘fairness fairies’: they must have ‘the eye’ for fairness of the outcome.

But it is not in all cases that parties know exactly what fairness might represent or require in their disputes. This is particularly so when they are not well or fully informed, are not in a position to obtain relevant information due to lack of resources, or have diminished capacity as result of disability etc. In these situations, what options are open to the mediator to support parties to assess the feasibility and practically of a proposed agreement? Who takes the role of the substantive ‘fairness fairy’?

Possibly the role of the ‘fairness fairy’ shifts to the support person(s) present at the mediation, or where a party is legally represented, to the legal representative who is expected to act in the best interest of her client. But are lawyers always fulfilling this role in mediations? Should the responsibility for fairness become solely that of legal representatives? Should mediators always assume that lawyers will act as ‘fairness fairies’ in mediations?

For a view on the role of lawyers in mediations, see post dated 27 March 2015: “On Mediation, Legal Representatives and Advocates by Bobette Wolski” (Post by Dr Olivia Rundle)

Mediation Quality

The benefits of mediation to society, individuals and the justice system are numerous and these make mediation a process fast increasing in popularity and usage in many quarters. There has been an increase in the use of mediation in the courts, the community sector and even within government. In Australia, mediation quality is promoted through the National Mediator Accreditation System (NMAS) Approval and Practice Standards. Research, however, shows that ensuring quality in mediation goes beyond provisions of the NMAS partly because applying the standards to ethical and practical issues that may arise in a particular context may bring to the fore conflicts between the standards. An example of such a conflict is between the requirements of self-determination and a mediator’s ethical obligation to terminate or withdraw when it appears to the mediator that the proposed outcome is so unfair that it shocks the conscience. Maintaining a balance between the two creates a further dilemma for mediators. How does a mediator address the fairness of a proposed outcome in order to make a decision regarding termination or withdrawal? To address this dilemma, mediators go beyond the NMAS, reaching out to, and making decisions based on personal values, other professional values (and obligations which they may be bound by in any case) and sometimes ask the question: Can I live with this?

What values inform [your] decision-making when faced with ethical dilemmas in mediation?

See: Justice Quality and Accountability in Mediation – a report