• Why the MIAM is more than just a box ticking exercise.


    To the uninitiated, and those unfamiliar with the deeper nuances of the mediation process, a Mediation Assessment and Information Meeting (MIAM), can seem like little more than a box-ticking exercise. It is seen either as a short stepping stone into the actual mediation process, or a hurdle to overcome on the way to issuing proceedings.

    But conducted properly a MIAM is much more than that. Furthermore, the success of a MIAM starts long before the referrer or the other party meets the mediator.

    The referral itself is an important element, as the information provided prior to a MIAM can mean the difference between converting the parties to mediation, or the case being marked as one or both parties being unwilling.

    The facilitating role played by referrers is crucial. The art of referral deserves to be on the skills palette of professionals who deal with other people's conflicts in their everyday work, whether they are managers, lawyers, judges, or HR staff. They should all be able to identify opportunities for an effective mediation referral. Research has shown that a decision to proceed to mediation is best taken in consultation with the parties to the conflict. The consultation should be preceded by a thorough diagnosis of the conflict, an investigation of the parties' interests in finding a solution by mutual agreement, and a review of the available options.

    This work helps to underpin and understand the importance and complexity of a mediation referral, and the need for specific skills in doing it effectively. Getting parties locked into a dispute to consider their options in an objective way is in fact a very sophisticated art. Potential litigants must be asked the right questions to move from impasse to resolution, from thoughts of court to visions of a better way to resolve their dispute through mediation.

    Most mediation provider bodies that have conducted research on the success ratio of mediation quote an approximately 80% chance of success. The reason for this is that when parties are in a situation where they all feel empowered to negotiate effectively, and achieve their needs, they generally do not fail to do so. Mediation provides that empowerment.

    Once the parties enter the realm of the MIAM, the mediator's skills and knowledge and personality take over, and must be used to their full effect to convey the right impression about what the mediation process can offer.

    So a MIAM is much more than ticking a box. It is an educational process for potential clients. The MIAM's basic function is to assess the parties for legal aid, explain how the process works, emphasise confidentiality and self- determination as far as outcomes are concerned, screen for domestic violence issues, and highlight the costs and time advantages compared to litigation.

    But the MIAM could and should go deeper than that. Conducted properly it can almost be likened to a pre-mediation process.

    MIAM's should not skimp on the psychological profile of the dispute and the back ground that has shaped the impasse and the conflict. The mediator must know where the parties are coming from before they walk into the room for the first mediation session. Assessing the party's capacity and ability to negotiate is a key element of the MIAM. Being aware of the level of conflict or hostility of the clients is another important factor, as the mediator may decide that shuttle mediation is required, at least to begin with.

    Post separation functioning of the parties will guide the mediator in terms of how to manage and structure sessions. For example, are the parties able to communicate at any level or has it completely broken down? Is there still a degree of attachment to the relationship by one of or both of the parties, or do they accept that their relationship is over?

    Ascertaining the level of parental functioning in the MIAM is another important area to establish. How much is each parent currently involved in the lives of their children? What changes have been made to parenting arrangements since the separation? Are the arrangements working? Are the consistent or erratic? Are the parents aware or concerned about how the children are adapting or coping with mum and dad's separation?

    How the parties are managing the family finances and their resources post separation is often a trigger for immense conflict, and must be screened for in the MIAM. What demands financially are being made on each party, and how is this contributing to their stress levels? How is each party coping with these demands on top of coping with the actual separation? Resources include both financial and emotional support. Who are the clients able to outreach to for support?

    Ethnic considerations should not be overlooked in the MIAM. Cultural diversity and language problems need to be handled sensitively in mediation to prevent both conflict and bias in the mediation process.

    The MIAM should also establish whether the parties have been married or cohabited prior to the current relationship, as a previous relationship breakdown and the resultant division of parenting time and assets can often influence a party's expectations when they enter negotiations this time round.

    A MIAM is an opportunity for exploration and discovery in terms of getting to know not only the issues that need to be resolved, but also how the parties are functioning post separation. Tuning in to the clients emotions, prejudices, preconceptions and expectations is a vital part of a mediator's work, so that when the first session takes place they are prepared for anything.

    In the complex but fascinating world of mediation, the mediator's motto should be 'Assume Nothing, Expect Anything and Everything'.