Covid Musings – Debbie Wahle

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November has crept in unannounced, unnoticed until we felt a little more tired and there was darkness in the afternoon. I have worked constantly as an accredited family mediator, delivering private and legally aided work. I have also returned temporarily to being a family solicitor for the wonderful Norfolk Community Law Service, in Norwich.

I felt comfortable from the beginning of the pandemic, despite the initial shock of working from home. I had used video platforms previously, both as a mediator working with members of the services stationed overseas, and when working as Public Solicitor on the remote British Overseas territory of St. Helena. Hearings and interim hearings had to be heard by conference call, from the middle of the South Atlantic ( nearest landmass Angola)  and when required by unreliable and unpredictable video link (with the Chief Justice, a UK recorder, but living in rural France).

Mediation during the early part of the Pandemic in March felt different.

Separated parents and families were looking to bring about change in a vortex of global change and uncertainty. It was initially about ensuring a safe quiet space could be provided within their own homes, gardens and even cars, with the whirr of domestic appliances, assorted family life, animals and the ever-present delivery of food and goods.

I, like many mediators, adapted my own presentation from the initial assessments. There was an intimacy of the talking head and of being aware of both of us being in our own space. Not quite confessional but there was a fear of the unknown for clients and an imbalance; little certainty of what would follow. I observed an additional tension and worry about making decisions and for those who felt wronged or where arrangements had been changed or suspended, even more of a sense of loss and anger; their lack of control felt more raw.

The first few months were challenging. Professionally, the need to purchase a decent chair and to ensure the office was clear and appropriate, photographs removed and the urgent hunt for reliable and consistent technology.

It was challenging to understand the different video platforms; both for me and clients. It was difficult to understand the prevailing guidance as to movement and social distancing and so hard for parents to navigate through conflicting information, despite judicial guidance. Parents were agitated at decisions being taken unilaterally during the pandemic which frequently led to often more conflict. Many families were forced through necessity to either remain in the family home or at times move in with new partners prematurely.  

I did work with a separated couple before lockdown dealing with all Issues. They returned for a second session remotely and after making a good agreement, re- evaluated their lives and those of their growing children and contacted me to tell me they had decided to try again. It was a good news day.  

The months passed, anger flared, and I observed a restlessness within the Mediations. People aware of the backing up of cases in the family courts came into Mediation wanting to redefine their relationships and to explore co-parenting. Parents spoke candidly about “the new normal” and the impact upon them emotionally and financially. Those who found the process helpful, fed back that they felt empowered to make decisions in a time where so little seemed possible..

Many positive agreements were made, and some returned prematurely to review decisions and to look even further forward. There was choice; they could make decisions, Mediation was working and providing a very real alternative to resolving long held disputes. 

I accept that face to face delivery is important and, in many cases the only fit.

However online Mediation has in my experience provided an excellent alternative, at times more accessible, not just in terms of geography, but inviting those in within the confines of their kitchen or in the quiet hours of a sleeping house, or at weekends. For many vulnerable clients, the ability to speak in their own environment, safely and measured was a definite positive.

I do not subscribe to the view that it has to be more formal; agreements to mediate can be signed and agreed and the process be fully effective, even if under a weighted blanket in your own home, I have found professionally it has been quite liberating to be away from the bland Mediation rooms and ubiquitous potted plant.

Debbie Wahle

Family Mediator

The Family Mediation Trust.