Conflicts that Should have been Mediated: (1) The Judge’s Dog

Every now and then I hear about a conflict that wasn’t mediated but should have been. Mediation would have saved the participants time, money and aggravation.

Judge Beatrice Bolton and the Malia family had been neighbours in the north of England for years when the judge acquired an Alsatian puppy. I don’t know how exactly it all started, but the Malias and Georgina, the dog, did not hit it off. The family say that they lived “in terror” of the dog, and demanded that Judge Bolton keep her chained up. Apparently the police were called several times, and the Malias resorted to installing CCTV on their property and keeping a “dog log” of incidents. The conflict came to a head at the end of May, when Georgina bit the Malias’ son, Frederick, who was home visiting from university. The bite did not require medical attention; the judge apologized. On December 13, 2010 she was convicted of allowing her dog to enter a private area where there was a “reasonable apprehension” that it would bite someone. She was fined £2500 and ordered to pay £275 to Frederick, £930 in court costs, and a £15 victim surcharge. The case has received a fair amount of press coverage in the UK because the judge was heard swearing loudly (calling the decision “a f****** travesty”) outside the courtroom after the verdict. She was also heard to yell, “I’ll never set foot in a court again!”

I know about the case only what I’ve read in published reports and many details are hazy. Judge Bolton’s legal counsel said that relations between the neighbours had deteriorated before and since the dog attack. At some point, Judge Bolton had attempted to mend the relationship by offering to introduce the dog to the Malias and to build a fence between the properties, but the Malias had refused both. It isn’t clear why the Malias refused the fence, and it isn’t clear whether the Judge allowed her dog to run free or whether she simply lost control of it on the day it bit Frederick.

The Judge plans to appeal the decision and is “considering her future.” Her behaviour outside of the courtroom will be referred to the Office for Judicial Complaints. Georgina the dog is being trained. The Malias have the satisfaction of having been vindicated in court; their son will live with what must be a frightening memory. Relations between the neighbours can hardly be comfortable.

Reading about the case, I wondered whether the police, on any of their numerous visits, had suggested mediation. A mediator would probably have met separately with both parties. (A meeting with Georgina the dog would be strictly optional.) He or she would have asked some probing questions to better understand the situation. Why did the judge acquire a dog? For companionship? For protection? What did the dog mean to her? What were her long-range plans with regard to training the dog? Why were the Malias afraid of the dog? What kinds of previous experiences with dogs, good and bad, had either of them had? Why did they refuse the Judge’s offer to build a fence? Depending on the answers, the mediator might shift strategy and ask questions that would help each party to start thinking about the situation from a different perspective: Had the judge ever considered what might happen if her dog bit someone? Did the Malias think a large playful dog would be content to be chained up for long stretches of time? Had they ever heard of a situation in which a dog-owner gave up their pet at the neighbours’ behest?

At some point, the mediator would have probably got the two parties to sit down together and listen to one another. Judge Bolton would hear about the Malias’ fear of Georgina and how having a dog next door affected their lives. The Malias would hear about Judge Bolton’s affection for the dog, and her hope for continued good relations with them. Then the mediator would move the parties towards thinking about the future. How could they ensure that the Malias didn’t have to live in fear of the dog, while at the same time allowing the Judge to care for her pet in the most suitable fashion? While it wouldn’t be easy or necessarily quick, the parties working together with the mediator would likely be able to come to a solution. All for much less than the price of CCTV installation.

A final note: As a North American, I found it a little dismaying that both the Daily Mail and the Telegraph felt necessary to refer to Judge Bolton as a “woman judge.” (Anyone not sure why might check out this nice posting on gratuitous modifiers.)