We never really expected to do a TV review blog, but last week saw the start of a new three-part BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary series called “Mr vs Mrs: Call The Mediator” on BBC2. The series promises an intimate look at the lives of those separating, divorcing or working out co-parenting. Since it first aired last week, we’ve been questioned repeatedly about what we thought of it from a professional point of view. By the time this blog goes out on a Wednesday morning there will have been another episode, which you’ll be able to view on catch-up TV if you missed it the first time.
The programme uses mediators who are members of National Family Mediation, a group that is made up predominantly of non-lawyer mediators who have a therapeutic or social work background. They are a significant provider of family mediation services in England & Wales, but are by no means the only way to do things. As lawyer mediators, we are always interested in seeing how the other side of our profession works, and we do feel that there are many circumstances in which we can learn from each other.
Jane Robey, NFM’s Chief Executive, said, “Our mediators and couples have granted privileged access to viewers to see a process that is usually kept behind closed doors, as couples work out long-term solutions that help them keep control of their own destinies, instead of handing it over to lawyers and judges. The series will provide a unique insight into an element of modern British family life rarely seen by others.”
It did provide that insight, and compelling viewing. On the other hand, in the first episode only one of the three former couples was obviously helped to find their own solution; of the other two, we were told that one got nowhere at all and one ended up in court. This is quite a disappointing way to present mediation, we feel, particularly as the two unresolved cases were cases about parenting which, in our experience, are usually likely to make real progress.
We thought it might be helpful to set out where our processes in mediation are shared with and different from those shown in the programme.
The first former couple, Peter and Sue, were working out how to split the nearly £1m of assets they shared after their long marriage. Peter was an accountant and Sue was a housewife. To us, this really set out one of the major problems that we face as mediators: how to balance power in the room when one of the people negotiating is very financially-savvy, and the other one has little experience of working with numbers. It is the mediator’s responsibility to ensure that there is a clear level playing-field for both participants, and that all the assets and the implications of any suggestions made for how to split them are fully understood all round before any provisional agreement is reached.
When people mediate about financial issues, it is usually sensible for them to be encouraged to take legal advice early on in the mediation process, and whenever they feel it necessary during the process. It is something that we recommend at the stage of the first pre-mediation individual meeting (‘MIAM’). We were surprised that Peter and Sue seemed to be getting towards an agreement without giving any detailed financial disclosure, something that held them up at the end. When we lawyers act as mediators, there is a clear process that involves financial disclosure being agreed as to scope, and given freely, before there is a discussion about options for dividing assets. Further, we always explain the legal principles that must underpin any settlement, because any settlement must be approved by a court before it can become legally binding, and the court won’t approve something that it does not consider to be within the bounds of fairness. It is possible that the mediator did cover this with Peter and Sue and it fell by the wayside in the editing room as not sexy enough for TV, but the way the process came across in the programme was rather unstructured, and very different from the way we work at CFLP.
The two former couples who were struggling with co-parenting – Martin and Nicky, and Vicky and Jason – made rather depressing viewing. What struck us most about these couples was how little focus there seemed to be in the mediation meetings on how these co-parenting difficulties were or might be affecting their children, and how they could both adapt to make things easier for them. Also we saw no legal context at all in the discussions, which is unusual particularly in such difficult cases where there seems a significant risk of court proceedings.
These were both unfortunately extreme cases, and although they might have been good for TV, we might question as mediators whether either case was appropriate for mediation at all. Perhaps because of the way the programme was edited, it was difficult again to see any structure to the discussions. We lawyers are fond of structure of course, but we do find that in mediation it helps people to feel that they are making some progress – something that neither of these former couples, sadly, seemed to achieve.
Mediation is hard work. It is tough for those who have separated, and it requires composure, self-control and bravery to make progress. However, mediation can be immensely rewarding. For those who are able to take a businesslike, problem-solving approach to dealing with their former partner, with the right mediator they can save months of time and thousands of pounds, not to mention making a real difference to the quality of life of their children. Our final verdict? Don’t believe everything you see on TV. If you’ve got any questions about what you’ve read here, or family mediation in general, you can call our specialist lawyer-mediator team on 01223 224384.