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Family disputes can occur in a wide variety of family matters. They can be messy, painful and costly and can cause lasting damage to the most precious relationships in our lives.

Some of these disputes end up on the desk of a solicitor and lend themselves to a legal resolution. However, where polarising family dynamics, past hurts, anger, fear and other emotions interplay with the legal issues, resolution of the legal options may be insufficient to restore family harmony or give the parties the closure they desire. If the underlying issues and interests are not addressed further conflict can erupt in other guises.

Where this is the case, mediation can provide a process that assists family members to resolve their differences in a mutually satisfactory way. It must be said that mediation is not a substitute for legal advice on legal issues and, once engaged in the role of mediator, a legally qualified mediator will support all the parties in addressing the wider issues and deeper interests involved rather than advising or representing any party/parties. The impartiality and independence of the mediator is central to the process and essential for the trust of all the parties. Simply put, the legally qualified mediator will ‘change hats’.

What are the issues that can be covered in wider family mediation?

Any issue or combination of issues that cause conflict within a family can be discussed in mediation. It can be a particularly effective process where multiple, inter-generational family members are involved and the issues relate to the care, health needs and other practical arrangements for an elderly relative. An appropriately trained mediator can assist families to navigate intergenerational challenges and plan for the future in a calm, dignified and respectful way.

For those who are travelling the difficult path of caring for a relative with dementia and for whom the future is uncertain, mediation can be a helpful process to discuss and reach decisions on meeting the future care needs of their beloved family member. All those involved need to be heard and, most importantly, the voice of the elderly person needs to be included, whether in person or in another way.

What happens in a wider family mediation?

A trained mediator will initially speak to all the relevant parties individually, including, where appropriate, the elderly person and then, if suitable, bring the parties together for a multi-party meeting. Shuttle mediation, where the mediator moves between the parties, is also an option and can be useful where there are issues of safety or high anxiety. Mediation is a flexible process and can be tailored to the particular needs of the family members.

It is private and confidential can be arranged relatively quickly. Outcomes outside the legal arena can be agreed, covering any number of practical issues.

Often these can be the key to resolving the issues that were first presented. With the best interests of the elderly person remaining central to the process and where the parties agree to work together, agreements can be made regarding formal and/or informal arrangements. Often communication can be improved and all of this can help to bring peace of mind and strengthen relationships at a precious time in the lives of all concerned.

Rosalind Dunlop is accredited with the College of Mediators for Child Focussed and Property and Finance Mediation and is a member of the Elder Mediation International Network. She is a Board Member of the Law Society Mediation Service.