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Time-bound Mediation: Good or Bad

Graduating from high school into college came with the added benefit of having exam time increased from two hours to three hours. This increment of time by 50% brought with it a hopeful sense of having sufficient time to complete all questions satisfactorily. It didn’t take long before it became apparent that even three hours was inadequate. There were questions I would have been able to successfully attempt with more time as well as those I would not manage even if I had unlimited time. Is time-bound mediation a bit like examinations for mediators?

Mediation is a voluntary process where parties are assisted by a neutral to handle their conflict. In facilitative mediation, the mediator plays the role of facilitator helping the parties identify common interests and thus arrive at a solution that is generated and owned by the parties. In some instances, such as court annexed mediation, the parties must participate as mediation is mandatory. Additionally, such mediation is often time-bound with mediators given a specific window within which to carry out mediation.

Faced with limited time and sometimes unwilling parties, there is both a race against time and the challenge of reaching a desirable outcome. Unless the parties are willing, valuable time is spent getting the parties to participate in the mediation process. This may involve engaging the parties to explain the mediation process and/or involving the court to summon their participation in the process. As both the parties and mediator continue the countdown to the end of their mediation period, there can either be pressure to agree or resignation to the inability in finding a solution. Such times are critical for the mediator to continue ensuring that the balance of power is maintained and that parties genuinely commit to agree rather than attempt to beat the deadline.

In other instances, time-bound mediation occurs as a result of limited resources; for example, when different mediation sessions are booked in the same room. A session may be assigned two hours with a half hour grace period before a different one can begin. Being aware that the space would be required within a definite period may lead the parties and mediator to rush, hence may not fully address the issues underlying a conflict. If agreements are reached during such sessions, they are unlikely to be honoured over the long-term.

How about the sessions where there is adequate time but discussions do not seem to progress? Mediators need to explore different options and angles yet remain alert to the possibility that solutions may not always be generated from mediation. However, there can be a thin line between accepting that a solution is not viable and giving up just before the parties find common ground. While parties are distinctly different, the experience and skill of a mediator come in handy in determining whether or not there is hope for a solution.

Even when there is no time limitation, mediation must ultimately come to an end with or without a way forward.


Sarah Ater

Sarah Ater is a Judiciary Accredited Mediator serving in the court annexed mediation program. She has keen interest in promoting work place mediation and exploring how mediation can contribute to sustaining resources in the coastal region.  MORE >

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