Split relationships co-parenting during lockdown – is online mediation the answer?

Lockdown is presenting challenges to everyone. Separated couples or those still working through their separation are facing hurdles that no-one could have anticipated, particularly when it comes to co-parenting.

Some couples are still living under the same roof, making boundaries difficult, and economic uncertainty as a result of the pandemic is adding strain to existing maintenance orders and hurdles to agreeing new financial arrangements. With delays in family courts for non-urgent cases, couples are likely to have a long wait to resolve issues through the courts.

Rebecca Eels, Senior Associate in national law firm Stone King’s Family & Mediation team, is a mediation expert and member of the Family Mediators Association (FMA) board and is trained to help couples in a non-confrontational way through their separation.

She said: “Since the beginning of lockdown we’ve helped many couples where they have become entrenched under the pressures of the current situation and are finding it difficult to find and agree solutions between themselves. Unsurprisingly, it is parents in particular who are often struggling. In extreme cases one parent is not allowing the other to spend time with the children.

We recognise that clients need mediation more than ever, and, in many ways, it is no different from face-to-face sessions, just online.

Rebecca explained that she sends clients information ahead of the session outlining how to prepare for it. Clients are asked to ensure they are in a comfortable setting where they will not be interrupted or overheard, perhaps with a cup of tea and a box of tissues nearby if they feel they might need it, so they feel safe when the session starts. Just like a face-to-face session, they set an agenda and begin the process. However, as a mediator Rebecca puts others measures in place to replicate sessions in person.

She said: “We have to recognise that we are in effect entering people’s homes and must be respectful of that. We also set boundaries around listening, as it is different not being able to read the nuances of body language in the same way. As in person, we wait for both parties to have joined the meeting before beginning any sort of conversation to maintain impartiality. If one party needs to step away, they can by entering a ‘locked room’ online, in the same way as they might step outside the mediation room and take a break. We do everything we can to replicate mediation in person.

Another seemingly small but important step is to ensure that the screens are set to show all participants in the same size, so that at no point one person is occupying the majority of the screen as this can impact the perception of the balance of power in a discussion.

With couples living in the same house we often recommend joining from separate rooms so they are each in their own space and we also address how to manage coming back together after the session and setting ground rules.

Where couples prefer not to be in the same meeting, two meetings are run concurrently with the mediator moving between both on what is known as a shuttle basis. This replicates where the mediator would physically move from room to move when mediating in person.

Are there advantages to mediation via Zoom, or other video conferencing facilities?

Rebecca said: “It’s important to get the right mediator that suits you, and for once geography is not a factor. Many mediators are now running online sessions and I have had couples from across the UK get in touch. Mediation offers a way around conflict to reach an agreement, whether it be around managing co-parenting, making financial decisions or making co-habiting during lockdown manageable. It is also a cheaper way to come to agreements around separation than sending a series of solicitors’ letters. We give lots of practical support and tips, such as managing mum or dad time, how to reassure worried and unsettled children and working out interim finances. The current situation is causing a lot of stress and where there is stress and conflict it can be hard to see a way out, but we are often able to make suggestions that couples have not even considered.

As a board member of FMA, Rebecca Eels is also running regional online forums to help mediation professionals adapt to offer online mediation, including discussing best practice and providing an opportunity for mediators to talk to each other at this isolating time.

More information about the process is available https://www.stoneking.co.uk/services/personal-law/family-and-mediation and https://thefma.co.uk/

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