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'I'm a professional mediator, but these students do the job as well as me'

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As a young child I don’t think I’d have known what mediation meant. That’s why Twitter references to peer mediation at a London primary school grabbed my attention. 

Mediation is part of my professional life, both mediating in high-value commercial disputes and, as a QC, advocating for clients in commercial mediations to secure the best outcome I can. I like to think I know what I’m doing in commercial mediations and was intrigued to see how the eight- to 11-year-old mediators at Herbert Morrison Primary School in Vauxhall went about their mediations. I’m of a generation where playground disputes were resolved, or more often not resolved, by robust methods normally leading to teacher intervention – possibly detention.

Headteacher Eileen Ross was delighted for me to meet six of her mediators. They told me about their views on peer mediation and reminded me why mediation is such an effective method for resolving disputes, commercial or playground.

Each mediator had been on a two-day training course provided by Healthy Minds, Lambeth. Sadly, provision of such courses is now threatened by cuts. I imagine the cost of delivering the course in a school is a fraction of what I paid for my five-day commercial course.

So how do their mediation skills compare to my own?

I was struck by how seriously the children took their responsibilities. One told me she enjoyed it, it made her feel happy and proud that those she helped had resolved their disputes so that they too were happier. 

The minor playground disputes or misunderstandings the mediators deal with can easily get out of hand, lead to upset children and become time-consuming distractions for teachers. The mediators walked the playground in their hi-vis duty mediator jackets and walkie-talkies, waiting for the disputants (surprisingly their word, rather than me being legalistic) to come to or be referred to them.

The mediators promised not to take sides or to tell the parties what to do. That perfectly summarises the role of a facilitative mediator. They promised not to gossip – confidentiality is as key and strictly applied in commercial mediation.

They have a minimum of rules in their mediations. Only one person can speak at a time and must do so with respect and without blame.

Sadly in commercial mediations, respect is often missing. Parties seek, at least initially, to bludgeon their way to success by showing the other side why they will win in court. These hairy-chested displays of bravado are often just part of a choreographed routine that could be skipped – as they appear to be in the peer mediations.

Parties in a commercial mediation may have a continuing commercial relationship that will inevitably be destroyed if the matter goes to court. The peer mediators’ approach - asking the parties how they feel and seeing things from the other’s perspective - therefore also applies in commercial mediation.

Ultimately whether in the playground or the commercial world it is the parties in dispute who must come up with suggestions and solutions.

The children knew all about body language, engaging the parties, and how to show interest. Frankly, there was nothing I could have taught them. I was hugely impressed with their dedication and commitment to mediation.

One thing I would love to be replicate from my visit would be the ability to move more quickly in sorting out solutions. It may be unrealistic to aim for a five-minute mediation in a dispute involving millions of pounds, but one does wonder why so often it takes eight hours before anyone makes an offer.

PJ Kirby QC works in Hardwicke chambers

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