What is mediation?
If you find a direct personal approach doesn’t work (or you don’t think it will), the next step is to try mediation. Mediation is a way of sorting out disagreements, where a mediator helps the people in dispute to find their own solution to their problem.
Mediation takes a common-sense approach to helping people solve their problems by:
- giving the people a chance to step back and think about how they could put the situation right;
- allowing people to come up with their own practical solutions that will help everyone involved;
- allowing people to rebuild their relationships as they work together to find an agreement.
In this way, mediation is different to the legal process, which is often about finding out who is to blame and who is ‘guilty’.
Mediation is generally cheaper and quicker than going to court. It can be used to settle disputes in a range of situations. It is a very good way of stopping them becoming worse. It is best to try to start the mediation process as soon as possible after the problem starts, instead of leaving the situation and hoping it will get better on its own.
How can mediation help?
Talking through your situation with an independent mediator can help in several ways:
- It gives you a chance to tell your side of the story – being listened to can make you feel supported.
- It allows you to admit how upset you are – many people cope with conflict by pretending they do not care.
- It puts you back in charge – ignoring situations or not dealing with conflict can make them seem worse than they are.
- It could help you decide what action to take next, even if that is not mediation.
Most types of mediation start when one person requests it. A mediator then contacts all the people involved to see if they will agree to take part. No one has to take part, and if they change their mind after starting mediation, they can stop at any point.
Mediators then usually visit everyone separately. In most community and neighbourhood disputes, mediators will work in pairs. They will ask each person to explain how they see the current situation, and how they would like it to be in the future. The mediators will also ask for each person’s suggestions for sorting out the disagreement.
Information you give the mediators, including things you tell them during mediation, is kept private and confidential unless everyone agrees it can be shared with the other people involved. However, if someone tells the mediators about an incident of serious abuse, the mediators have to tell the police. Also, if mediation ends with a signed written agreement, this will not be kept private.
Mediations often take place without the different sides meeting face to face. In these cases the mediators carry information from one person or group of people to another. However, it is best to have face-to-face meetings, because they offer more chance of a lasting agreement between the two sides.
If both sides agree to come to a meeting, this is what happens:
- Mediators will explain how the meeting will work, and ask everyone to agree to some basic rules, such as listening without interrupting and not saying offensive things.
- Each person will then have a chance to talk about the problem as it affects them. The mediators will try to make sure that everyone understands what each person has said, and will allow the other side to respond.
- The mediators will then help both sides to agree on the issues that need to be sorted out. Often this leads to solutions that no one had thought of, which makes it easier for everyone to agree to them.
- The agreement is usually written down and signed by both sides and the mediators. It is not enforceable, except in normal contract law through a county court, and it is only effective if the participants keep to it. The reason it is likely to work is that the parties have an interest in making it work. Its strength lies in their desire to resolve the problem. The agreement does not affect anyone's legal rights, and allows anyone involved to deal differently with the dispute in the future, if necessary.
Why is mediation often a good way to sort out problems?
Mediation works because:
- it allows everyone involved to be heard. Many disputes start, or get worse, because of poor communication. Being heard and a simple apology from either or both sides can be all that is needed to put the situation right;
- it encourages people to put forward their suggestions and ideas;
- it is less intimidating than legal procedures. People represent themselves rather than having someone speak for them. If you need support for some reason, you can use an advocate to speak on your behalf;
- it leads to solutions that the parties themselves have decided on, giving them all a sense of ownership of the agreement. As a result, agreements reached in this way last much better than solutions handed down by courts or an arbitrator;
- it can be organised quickly. When disagreements are not tackled, they can escalate. Mediation is easy to arrange and can be completed within weeks; and
- usually it’s affordable for all. Most mediation for neighbour disputes is free to those who want to use it. This is because it is usually funded by local authorities, housing associations and other agencies, sometimes including the police, who benefit from disputes being resolved. Many other disputes within communities – with schools, doctors and others – can also be tackled by a local mediation service.
How can I find a mediation service?
Many communities have a mediation service, which is usually free to people who have a dispute. If there is not one in your community, a mediation service in a nearby area may be willing to help.
What if the neighbour has been or may be violent?
If you are afraid that your neighbour may attack you if you try to discuss the problem, it is obviously best not to approach them. In this case, you should contact the police. If you have a good reason for believing the neighbour will be violent, there is a chance the police already have a record of violence or the threat of violence from them. The police can use powers such as an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) to protect you and to try to stop the neighbour’s behaviour. See ‘Anti-social behaviour orders’.
People’s behaviour can sometimes seem strange, especially when they are under stress, and you may feel that you cannot reason with them. Mediation may still help you find a solution to the problem. A mediator will be able to assess whether mediation is possible. If you feel someone is dangerous – a risk to themselves or others – you should contact social services or the police.
Some mental health problems, alcohol or drug abuse make sorting out a dispute harder. You should always consider your personal safety and not put yourself in a position where you might be at risk of violence.
What if my neighbour is racially harassing me?
If you are being harassed by a neighbour because of your race, you should report this to the police. Racial harassment is a crime and the police should take action to stop it. However, remember that many disputes arise between neighbours because people have different lifestyles and cultures.
The Commission for Racial Equality can provide information and advice to people who think they have been racially harassed or discriminated against. See ‘Further help’ for details.
Community Legal Advice “Neighbourhood and Community Disputes” leaflet series:
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