Written by Professors Rachael Field and Jonathan Crowe. The post is a version of a paper delivered at the 6th ADR Research Network Roundtable, 4 -5 December 2017.
The dominant paradigm of mediation ethics has traditionally given a central role to the notion of mediator neutrality. However, this focus has been criticised in recent decades for being unrealistic and overlooking the power dynamics between the parties. In our forthcoming book, Mediation Ethics: From Theory to Practice, we advocate a new paradigm of mediation ethics focused on the notion of party self-determination. Why, then, is party self-determination a suitable candidate for this role?
The justification for making party self-determination the primary ethical imperative of mediation centres on two main arguments. The first argument is that the possibility of achieving self-determination for the parties is what distinguishes mediation from other dispute resolution processes and makes it a distinct and valuable process in its own right. The second argument is that the achievement of party self-determination provides a principled foundation for the legitimacy of the mediation process. We discuss these arguments briefly below.
Mediation as a distinct process
Party self-determination is the key factor distinguishing mediation from litigation and other dispute resolution processes, because mediation provides the parties with the ultimate power to decide how to resolve their dispute. A mediator’s role is to use their expertise so as to enable and empower the parties to reach their own decision. This characteristic of mediation is special and distinct.
This point is emphasised by the fact that in litigation, arbitration, and even conciliation processes, the focus is not on enabling and empowering the parties to take control of their dispute and to reach an outcome of their own determination. Rather, the focus is on the third party decision-maker or specialist judging the merits of the parties’ cases and imposing a decision. Such adjudicative activity is generally guided by objective norms or criteria—most often centred on the law. There is limited opportunity for party self-determination in such processes.
Party self-determination in mediation is also distinctive because it is relational—grounded in connection, cooperation and collaboration. This concept of self-determination is very different from an atomistic notion of autonomy that emphasises privacy and self. An atomistic conception of self-determination arguably underpins the adversarial legal system, because each party is encouraged to advocate single-mindedly for their own interests. In mediation, by contrast, party self-determination does not exist on an individual level; rather, it is holistic and relational, encompassing the needs and interests of both parties. If only one party experiences self-determination, the process has not succeeded in its aims.
Principled and legitimate outcomes
A second argument for emphasising party self-determination is that it provides a principled foundation for the legitimacy of the process. Party self-determination can be said to lead to principled outcomes because it reflects foundational values of our legal, social and political order. These include traditional liberal values, such as consent, autonomy, respect, privacy and dignity. However, they also include relational values, such as empathy, emotional expression and interpersonal dialogue.
These values highlight the importance of party involvement and collaboration in the negotiation, creative option generation and decision-making components of mediation. In mediation, the parties can achieve a principled outcome because they are deeply and thoroughly involved in working through the issues, discussing their individual and mutual perspectives, and developing the terms of the final resolution. Party engagement also promotes the personal dignity of the parties, particularly when the result is to avoid the inevitable costs and uncertainties of litigation.
Party self-determination also promotes principled outcomes because it yields a form of real world justice. Many disputes take place in a context where the parties have different needs, priorities and values. Parties value different things, and also value things differently. This means that compromises and trade-offs are an inevitable and constructive part of the process. Compromise, then, does not mean the process is unprincipled or illegitimate. Rather, the value of compromise represents a key principle in its own right. It can lead to a more principled and legitimate result than rule-based or adversarial approaches. The notion of party self-determination recognises and embodies this important value.