Mediating in the Time of Coronavirus
In the hackneyed words of the Abba Song: “Breaking up is never easy I know”, but Coronavirus has the potential to make a difficult situation worse. Divorce proceedings may be delayed, contact arrangements may be thrown into disarray, and financial agreements might be threatened by job loss or reduced income. House sales and purchases may be put on hold, and in the meantime, you might be having to share a roof with someone that you thought would have moved out by now. If you have children at home with you, then their anxieties and boredom can exacerbate the situation. Just when you need support most, you can’t visit your mum, or stay with your friends for a couple of night, or even go to the gym to take out frustrations on the treadmill. And just to cap it all, the professionals who could help you are being told to keep a safe distance and avoid face to face contact at all costs.
Of course, you can obtain a legal divorce relatively quickly and relatively cheaply online, and for many this must seem like the ideal solution. But a “legal” divorce doesn’t resolve financial issues. Unless you obtain a financial order at court, you leave yourself open to a claim further down the line. Even if you obtain a divorce, that doesn’t mean that instantly the problems described above will miraculously go away. You might well still need to wait for a sale of the family home, or you might be reluctant to take on a lease until you know your job is safe, and you can’t increase your hours if the work is not there or if the schools are not open for your children.
Mediation has traditionally been used to negotiate child arrangements and financial settlements. It is only one of several options to help you through the process of separation. But mediation also offers a safe place to discuss interim plans: what to do while waiting for the final order to become a reality.
Mediation is typically done face to face, with all parties in the same room for the majority of the time. If you are living separately under the same roof, there is no reason why mediation can’t be done via Skype or Zoom provided that both participants feel safe to mediate like this. The first stage in any mediation process is the Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM), which can be done by video link or telephone where video linking is not possible. The mediator will explore all aspects of the process with you to determine whether mediation is going to be helpful and safe for you.
If you are living apart, online mediation in the current climate has advantages over the more traditional face to face model.
- The obvious advantage is that there is no chance of catching or transmitting Coronavirus.
- Geographical distance and travel is not an issue. Mediation between clients in different countries with different time zones is not uncommon, although it does sometimes mean that mediation takes place at slightly odd times of the day.
- There is no need to stick to office hours if an early morning or evening appointment works better for you.
- Mediation sessions themselves can be more flexible, with an option for longer breaks during the session, separate times with the mediator, without everyone worrying that the meeting room time is running out.
- Although you can see and hear your ex-partner, you are physically removed from any behaviours that might otherwise intimidate or infuriate you.
Mediation via video conference does take good preparation. Financial disclosure needs to be well managed and well-prepared to avoid a non-productive or one-sided session. Some technical knowhow is required to access Skype, Zoom or whatever platform your mediator offers. Ideally too, you will have access to a scanner or printer to facilitate document exchange. None of these is an insurmountable problem. Financial information can be sent separately to the mediator in advance of the session to be checked over. There is an abundance of online help to set up your Skype or Zoom account and document exchange can be managed by post if all else fails.
If you’re mediating from your own home, then make sure that you’re not interrupted by the phone or overheard by anyone (especially the children). It also helps to make sure that the environment is as comfortable and professional as possible. Your ex-partner will be able to see what you see on the screen, including any family photos, pets, or anything else that might trigger an emotional response.
A trained mediator in the room with you will be able to spot when you need a break or a coffee; this might not happen when you’re on a video link, so you might need to be a bit more proactive in letting the mediator know what you need. These are all issues that can be discussed at your MIAM.
We all hope that the Coronavirus measures will relax sooner rather than later, and once they do, your mediation sessions can return to a more traditional model; but if you are feeling that everything about your divorce has been put on hold, then consider whether online mediation might be able to help, if only to be able to discuss how to get through self-isolation.