The central role of party self-determination in mediation ethics

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.

RF and JC Image

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.


What’s in a frame? Power, control and desire in the experience of family mediation.


We bring our readers another blog post, written by Assoc Prof Jill Howieson. The post is version of paper presented at the just concluded ADR Research Network Roundtable, 4 -5- December 2017 #ADRRN2017. Happy reading!

“By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.” —Parker J. Palmer

In 2011, I wrote on the Kluwer Mediation blog. I wrote about the same transcripts from the family mediations that I have analysed for this paper. In 2011, I wrote that I was reading about desire in these transcripts. I had returned to my 1985 language, literature and culture textbook, Modern Literary Theory, and to psychoanalytic and linguistic theories to try to understand what I was reading.

I was drawn particularly to Lacan and Foucault, and their analysis of language. A few years on and Parker J Palmer captivates me with his notion of the tragic gap –“the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible.

Now these concepts converge. Jacques Lacan’s lack, or the “endless chain of signifiers” that we use in pursuit of a ‘real’ satisfaction or desire; Michel Foucault’s recognisable objects (or hierarchies) of importance, and the practices that derive from them that we create to uphold power; and Parker J Palmer’s tension gap, where we “faithfully hold the tension between reality and possibility.” These are all concepts that can inform our understandings about mediation.

Firstly, I wondered if we as mediators do not ‘faithfully hold the tension’; namely, the tension between what parties say they want and what they desire. The present analyses of the transcripts suggests that mediators can create tight frames for their mediation discourses and thereby impose a control on the parties’ language, and thus on their needs and desires – or at least their acknowledgement of their needs and desires.

The Foucauldian analysis alerted us to the power that mediators can create through their language. It showed that a mediator’s language could create recognisable objects or hierarchies of importance, which has the effect of elevating these objects and giving them power. The mediators in the study were able to elevate the status of various ‘objects’ including the notion of ‘good parents’ who will compromise and come to agreements, and parents who displayed calm rational ways of disputing or negotiating through their choice of words. By elevating these objects, the mediators could control the practices that flowed from them. For instance, where the mediators accorded importance to the notion of ‘good parents’ and excluded ‘naughty parents’ from the discourse, this empowered the mediators to push the ‘naughty parents’ into attending child-focussed sessions.

Further, with their language, the mediators seemed to create frameworks for the mediation that would cause the parties to work within those discoursal frames.  Through a repetition of Court-focused words, the mediators created court-focused frames, which had the effect of creating fear in the parties and empowered the mediators to push for agreement (to keep the parties out of court).  The parties would follow the mediator’s language and tailor their conversation to suit regardless of whether this was where they wanted to go or not. For instance, a discoursal frame of court had the result of moving the parties towards plans and agreements, and took them away from their ‘real’ fears and desires.

Further, the results revealed that mediators would listen according to their mediation orientation. If mediators worked within a settlement orientated frame, then they would listen for agreements or signals that might lead to agreements and use interventions to suit, such as writing options on the whiteboard and recording agreements.  On the other hand, mediators working within a ‘best interests of the child’ framework would listen for examples about the child’s perspective and how the children might be experiencing the separation, and then choose child-focussed interventions to encourage the parents to think of themselves as parents rather than as disputants.

Essentially, it seemed that despite their best intentions, the mediators would often miss the real desires of the parties and/or ignore the power discourse that they were creating as they pushed towards certain outcomes rather than sitting in the process tension of possibility.

According to Lacan, needs, if left unattended (or are reframed), do not disappear but turn into desire. In 2011, I asked what language in mediation do we have to address the parties’ unmet needs and desires. Now, I ask, how do we even hear these desires and needs when we mask them so well with our own desires for outcomes?

If we want to hear the desires of the parties (and I am not saying that all mediators do) then we need to begin to listen differently. We need to listen for the structures of desire in mediation that tell us what it is that the parties crave. We need to sit in the process-outcome tension and listen to the repetitions; the patterns and the experience of the parties so that they can access their true selves and their true desires, and then tell us what these are if they need to.

The Lacanian analysis revealed that the parties would often repeat words or patterns of words that would give ideas about their desires:

  • their attachment desires (I haven’t found someone worth living with and having my children involved with; I don’t live with somebody that helps me share my rent, helps me share my bills).
  • desire to be a good parent or better person (But that will change in the next … probably ten weeks…that will change), or
  • a desire to give the children what they perceived they needed (I’ve always said to M and to a mediator that assessed me …They’re four boys. They need their dad).


These examples of repetition occurred within conversations about which school the children would go to and who would pay for the children’s after-school sport activities—they were not so easily identifiable as desires.

So, what do parties say as they seek attachment to calm their unattached selves, or calmness to keep their selves intact in the chaos of conflict? What hidden desires does their language conceal? In the transcripts, there were prolonged, sometimes nonsensical discussions about the location, denomination and even the principal of the children’s schools—signifiers perhaps? There were discussions about the children’s dental plan or child payments —masquerading as desires for closure and the ‘gestalt’ perhaps?

We can never really know, but we can guess. We can sit in the tension gap of the unfolding of meanings and the ongoing and reflexive nature of mediation. The research shows that mediators tend to focus on the agreements more so than the parties do. The parties’ conversations tended more towards an articulation of what they were experiencing rather than towards concrete agreements.  We could look at the relationship between language, outcomes and experience more closely.  As Parker J Palmer writes, tension in life is ‘inevitable, inexorable, [and] inescapable’.  We could use this tension and assist the parties to make meaning out of their situations, actions and desires; to move from the jumble of conflict – the chaos – to the destination of desire, or at least understanding their desire; to make meaning in the disorganised realm, whether of experience or thought, and sort this out into an understanding of needs.

But, what mediation language do we use? What do we use as signifiers? And what desire is repressed as we substitute our language of desire for the language of courts, or child development or parties’ needs?

In 2011, I wondered whether, in every mediation, we were selling ourselves short. I wondered whether, with our future focus, our discourse of agreement, as we shape and mould, whether we were trying to camouflage that which is continually trying to show itself – our gaps, our cracks, our ugliness, our humanity, our beauty, our desires! I think in 2017, the answer might be a resounding yes.





Honesty and Candour in Mediation: Are They in Short Supply?

Mediation, like negotiation, is at its most basic a process of communication between parties in dispute. The aim in mediation is to find a mutually agreeable solution. The success of mediation might well depend on the ‘honesty’ and ‘candour’ of the parties and their representatives. The parties must be honest and open enough to find a zone of agreement.

The terms honesty and candour need to be defined. Elsewhere I have defined ‘honesty’ as a concept which concerns the accuracy of information conveyed, while ‘candour’ is a concept which goes to the heart of whether or not information is conveyed at all.


Honesty the flower: credit Creative Commons  see below”>Dave_A_2007</a&gt;

While it makes sense for the parties to be honest and open enough to find a mutually acceptable solution, only a fool would rush into a mediation and reveal, at the outset, their BATNAs, WATNAs, and bottom lines.

As for mediators, they are constantly handling information gleaned from the parties in dispute. Often they have to run ‘messages’ back and forth from separate sessions with the parties.

This short discussion looks at the obligations, if any, which fall upon the mediation participants and mediators to be honest and candid.

Parties and their representatives – duties owed to mediators and to each other


Standard form agreements to mediate and relevant legislation do not usually impose an obligation to be honest and/or candid, although they often require parties to ‘cooperate’ with each other and with the mediator to carry out tasks such as isolation of issues in dispute, exploration of options and so on. Many legislative schemes require the parties to participate in good faith. The terms ‘cooperation’ and ‘good faith’ (and ‘genuine effort’) are rarely defined in agreements to mediate or by relevant legislation but the courts have discerned some common elements (eg attendance at the mediation by someone with authority to settle). Some guidance on behaviour which is not inconsistent with good faith in mediation is also available from cases and commentaries. Good faith does not require a party to act against self-interest and it does not require a party to take ‘any step to advance the interests of the other party’.[1] Good faith does not require the parties to engage in total disclosure. There is no requirement to reveal all of one’s negotiation goals and bottom lines.

Lawyers, as agents for their clients, are also bound by the obligation to act in good faith. A lawyer cannot mislead the mediator or his or her opponent about a material fact for it is recognised that such action (or inaction, where a false statement needs to be corrected) constitutes bad faith.

Negotiation Convention

It is sometimes assumed that interest-based negotiation, which underlies the facilitative model of mediation, requires honesty and candour. Negotiators adhering to an interest-based approach might explain their positions and interests (and refrain from misleading on these matters) with the idea of finding a solution that meets each parties’ interests, but the prescription to be honest and forthcoming with information stops at positions and interests. There is no requirement under this model of negotiation to disclose one’s BATNA or bottom lines.

Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers

If the parties are legally represented, the level of regulation intensifies. Legal representatives are subject to the ‘law of lawyering’ including the rules of conduct of the legal profession. These rules set out obligations owed by lawyers to courts and tribunals, clients, opponents and other parties.

Lawyers cannot mislead or deceive the court on any matter. They must advise the court of any adverse legal authorities and legislation. They must be honest and courteous to clients. They must not mislead or deceive their opponents. They must treat everyone with whom they interact, with honesty and courtesy.

Aside from the requirement to advise the court about adverse legal authorities and legislation, the rules do not impose a positive obligation to reveal information unless it is necessary to correct a half-truth or to correct a prior statement which has since become false.

The rules in relation to clients, opponents and others are easily transferable to mediation. The rules in relation to courts are an awkward fit in mediation. It seems that practitioners must treat mediators as courts (see the definition of ‘court’ in the professional conduct rules). If this is the case, practitioners must never mislead or deceive a mediator and they must reveal adverse legal authorities and legislation. I say that this is an awkward fit because mediators do not make substantive decisions and, unless he or she is an evaluative mediator, a mediator seems to have no need for information on adverse authorities and legislation. What is clear is that practitioners do not have to reveal other information either to the mediator or to an opponent save if it is necessary to correct a half truth or correct a statement which has become false (and of course, the practitioner must not reveal information without the consent of the client).

Mediators – duties owed to participants

The NMAS Standards

Assuming that a mediator is accredited under the NMAS and ‘bound’ by the scheme’s Practice Standards (PS), the mediator owes a duty of honesty in regard to matters of advertising and promotion of mediation. But that may be the extent of the mediator’s obligation for honesty under the PS. The mediator might owe an obligation to act with ‘integrity’ but the meaning of that term is not clear.

Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers

If the mediator is a lawyer, he or she is still subject to the law of lawyering.

Lawyer mediators owe obligations to the court (not to mislead or deceive). A lawyer mediator is still a lawyer and could not, for example, be a party to a fraud committed during mediation.

The rules governing the relationship of lawyers and opponents seems to have no application to mediators. Mediation participants are not the mediator’s opponents.

Mediation participants are not clients in the traditional sense.

It may be that participants are best considered to be ‘others’ (they are certainly not courts). If this assumption is correct, mediators are obliged to treat mediation participants with honesty and courtesy but there is, at least under the legal profession’s rules, no requirement for candour.

What is the safest course?

The best advice for parties (and their legal representatives) is to reveal information slowly and cautiously. If information is conveyed, care must be taken to ensure that it is accurate. Lawyer mediators must also take care to ensure that any information they convey is accurate. Since there is no general duty of candour, all those who participate in mediation – including mediators – must think before they talk. At times, they may want to take refuge in a silent ‘safe harbour’.


[1] United Group Rail Services Limited v Rail Corporation New South Wales [2009] NSWCA 177 (3 July 2009) [76] (Allsop P).