Check Against Delivery
4 February, 2015
Speech by Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD
Unfortunately, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, TD, is unable to be here this evening due to another commitment. I am pleased therefore to have this opportunity to address on her behalf the important subject of mediation.
At the outset, I want to thank the Senators for providing me with the opportunity to address this important issue. As Senators are aware, the Programme for Government for National Recovery 2011 – 2016 contains the following commitment
“We will encourage and facilitate use of mediation to resolve commercial, civil and family disputes in order to speed up resolution of disputes, reduce legal costs and ameliorate the stress of contested court proceedings.”
The general position is that the Minister for Justice and Equality obtained Government approval for publication of the General Scheme of the proposed Mediation Bill in March 2012. The contents of the General Scheme of the Bill were subsequently considered by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence. That Committee’s subsequent Report identified a number of specific issues meriting further examination in the context of the drafting of the Bill.
The current position is that the Bill is being drafted in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. Senators will appreciate the fact that the Government has a very demanding schedule of urgent Bills which are currently being drafted in the OPC. For that reason, it is not possible to give a specific date for publication of the Bill at this stage. However, the Minister has asked me to say that she intends to proceed quickly with enactment of the legislation following publication later this year.
During this short intervention, I want to focus on certain key provisions of the Bill.
One of the main aspects of the Bill is the introduction of a key provision which provides for the introduction of an obligation on solicitors to advise their clients to consider utilising mediation as an alternative to court proceedings for the resolution of disputes.
Under the section, it is proposed that a solicitor must:
· advise his or her client to consider using mediation as an alternative means of resolving the dispute;
· provide the client with information concerning mediation services, including the names and addresses of persons or organisations qualified to provide such services;
· provide an estimate of the legal costs likely to arise in the event of court proceedings, together with an estimate of legal costs if the client is unsuccessful in those proceedings.
This provision further requires that any person commencing civil proceedings must provide the court with a written statement confirming that his or her solicitor advised on the possible use of mediation as an alternative to the court proceedings for settling the dispute. I should add that the Bill places a similar obligation on a barrister with regard to the provision of information on mediation.
The Bill further provides that mediation may be embarked upon by parties on their own initiative at any stage prior to, or after the commencement of, court proceedings. The section also contains a provision which is designed to reinforce the fundamental principle that the outcome of a mediation process shall be determined by the parties themselves. It also underlines the principle that participation in mediation is voluntary, and any party involved in a mediation process may withdraw from it at any time and without explanation.
The Bill also contains important provisions concerning the role of the mediator. It
· requires a mediator to prepare a written agreement on the terms of the mediation process;
· places an obligation on the mediator to establish whether he or she has, or may have, any existing or potential conflicts of interest in the case;
· sets out the information which must be given by the mediator to the parties before the commencement of the process. This includes information concerning the voluntary nature of the process, the manner in which a mediation process can be concluded and confirmation that the outcome of the process will be determined by the parties themselves.
The Minister believes that parties to mediation should be informed as far as possible in making decisions regarding a choice of mediator. For that reason, the Bill contains a requirement that a mediator must, before the commencement of the mediation process, provide details of his or her training and experience in mediation to all parties. This is in line with the practice already set out in various voluntary codes of practice for mediators. A mediator must also, if requested, provide a party with information regarding any specialist training they might have which would be relevant to the matter at hand as well as details of any continuing professional development activities which they have undertaken.
Confidentiality is a basic and fundamental aspect of any mediation process. Therefore, the Bill will provide that confidentiality should generally apply to communications made during mediation processes. However, in certain circumstances, the interests of justice would not be served by confidentiality and the Bill therefore provides that it will not apply:
· where disclosure of a mediation communication is necessary to implement any agreement arising from the mediation;
· where disclosure is necessary to prevent physical or psychological injury to a party;
· where disclosure is required by law;
· where a mediation communication is used to commit or conceal a crime, or to threaten a party to the mediation process;
· where the communication is needed to prove or disprove a civil claim relating to alleged negligence or misconduct of a mediator during the mediation.
The Bill also makes provision that the parties alone have the power to determine whether an agreement has been reached and the manner in which is becomes enforceable. The section further provides that a court may, on the application of the parties to any written agreement reached at mediation, enforce the agreement.
In addition, the Bill provides that a court may – either on the application of any party involved in proceedings or of its own motion – where it considers it appropriate having regard to the circumstances of the case invite the parties to consider using mediation as an alternative to the proceedings.
Finally, with regard to the content of the Bill, it provides that where a court has invited parties to consider using mediation, it may, in awarding costs in the proceedings, have regard to any unreasonable refusal by a party to consider using mediation where such a process had, in the court’s opinion, a reasonable prospect of success.
Following publication of the General Scheme, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence held two days of oral hearings and subsequently published, in June 2012, a Report on the General Scheme of the Bill. While the Committee’s Report did not make recommendations, it presented some observations on particular issues which arose from the submissions received by the Committee and during the oral hearings. A key issue identified by the Committee was the possible establishment of a regulatory structure for the mediation sector.
The Minister has asked me to inform the House that, following receipt of the Report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee, her Department held consultations with several mediation bodies and individual mediators on the issues identified in the report, in particular the possible establishment of a regulatory structure.
The position regarding establishment of such a regulatory structure is that the Minister is conscious that very many qualified mediators are drawn from professions which are already subject to strict regulatory oversight. They include members of the legal professions, and professionals from fields as diverse as accountancy, engineering and social work.
Any new regulatory structures for mediators must, therefore, take due account of the existence of these existing regulatory regimes and ensure that any further regulatory burdens and compliance costs are both necessary and proportionate. One possible way forward would be to give statutory recognition to a representative body, or council, established by the mediation sector itself. Such a body could be entrusted with functions such as:
· promoting public awareness of, and providing information to the public about the availability and operation of mediation services across the State;
· maintaining and developing standards for the provision of mediation services;
· drawing up and overseeing the operation and application of codes of practice for mediators;
· establishing and maintaining a register of mediators who have signed up to approved codes of practice;
· developing and approving continuing professional development activities for mediators;
· advising on the establishment and operation of mediation information sessions in family law cases.
The discussions which have taken place with mediation bodies have focussed on the establishment of such a structure. The intention is that it would be self-financing and would consist of representatives drawn from across the mediation sector.
The Minister has asked me to refer to another important provision which will be included in the forthcoming Bill. The Government believes that mediation has a particularly important role to play as an alternative to adversarial family law proceedings. Mediation can provide a less stressful and adversarial process for the resolution of cases of family breakdown and the related issues of custody and access to children.
The Bill will, therefore, contain a provision which will require parties embarking on such proceedings to attend mediation information sessions. Such a requirement is in line with the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission in their Report on Mediation and Conciliation. Discussions have taken place with the Legal Aid Board on this issue and the Board has indicated that it would be willing to assist in the provision of mandatory information sessions in family law cases involving children.
Before concluding, I should also point out that there is an increasing international trend towards the use of mediation as a tool for the resolution of civil disputes. For example, a Mediation Directive has been adopted at European Union level and has been given effect throughout the EU since 2011. The Directive has been given effect here in the European Communities (Mediation) Regulations 2011.
Finally, I want to thank the Senators for tabling this motion and for providing the House with the opportunity to discuss this important subject.