The other day a young man called to ask if I could mediate a dispute between him and a developer over the return of his deposit on a pre-construction condominium. He desperately needed the money back. When I asked if he had a lawyer, he told me in frustration that he was an engineer, and he felt he could get this resolved without a lawyer. My heart sank, as I realized there was little chance he could be successful without the help of a lawyer.
By the time a party in a dispute gets to the stage of a mediation, he or she will have experienced enough of the legal system to feel demoralized and extremely frustrated. No doubt their dignity will have taken a hit at some point. Many unrepresented litigants report having been treated poorly. The mediation process should not be a further affront. As the mediator, control the process to ensure that it is fair and respectful.
- The ADRIC Code of Conduct 3.4 states that, “the Mediator shall, where appropriate, advise unrepresented parties to obtain independent legal advice.” I always suggest that parties without a lawyer get legal advice, and I keep a list of lawyers whom I feel are both effective and good with people. Parties in mediation should know that it isn’t too late to work with a lawyer. You can also suggest that they contact the Law Society of Ontario Referral Service for a referral and a free half-hour consultation.
- If you have stereotypes about the kind of people who forgo legal help, forget them now. A recent Ontario survey found that over half of the people attempting to represent themselves in court had a university education.
- Make sure that unrepresented parties understand that they will be responsible for half of the cost of mediation, including the mediator’s fees and any fees for renting space. If a lawyer on the other side offers to hold the mediator in his or her office to save on costs, make sure that the unrepresented party is comfortable with this.
- I explain to unrepresented parties before the mediation that we will probably start off with a joint session and later move to separate rooms, and that I will be going between the rooms. Therefore they might end up spending a lot of time alone, and if they want, it is OK to bring a friend or support person.
- Unrepresented parties often see the mediation session as a hurdle to jump over so that they can get in front of a judge. One of the mediator’s challenges is to get them to take the process seriously and as a real chance to resolve their dispute.
- Some lawyers, facing an unrepresented party on the other side of the table, go out of their way to be patient and respectful. Others, unfortunately, will struggle to work with someone who lacks expert knowledge. If you find a lawyer cannot hide her irritation and impatience towards an unrepresented party, take her aside and give her an opportunity to vent. Then make it clear that you expect a professional demeanor.
- It can also help to contextualize a lawyer’s behaviour. I have found many parties in mediation, whether they have their own lawyer or not, become convinced that the other party’s lawyer “doesn’t like them” and this is why the case won’t settle. I try to help parties understand that the lawyer’s job is to advocate forcefully for his or her client. The lawyer’s personal feelings rarely enter into it.
I have met mediators who refuse to work with unrepresented parties. No doubt, it is more challenging to convene a fair process when one party is at a strong disadvantage. Yet unrepresented parties are not going away. Mediators, like other parts of the legal system, must adapt to the challenge.
“Pillars of Justice” by Edwina Sandys. Photo by author.