The mediation in question was part of an exercise organised by the ADR Group (specialists in alternative dispute resolution). It was the first of its kind in Europe. The parties were not real, nor were the facts. But the "clients" (represented by members of the ADR group) and the solicitors (including my firm, TLT) on each side treated the exercise as if they were. There was a competitive edge and a serious purpose to the game.
I suspect that it was not by chance that the ADR Group chose a construction dispute for the experiment. The construction industry generates plenty of disputes but it is also innovative in implementing ways to resolve them.
This is how the online mediation experiment worked. The parties prepared "position statements" and executed a mediation agreement in the normal way. These documents were emailed to the mediator who posted them onto the "open" chat room. Clients, solicitors and the mediator had access to this room. The mediator decided when it was appropriate to have open discussion in the room, as in any other mediation.
Each party also had its own private chat room for discussion with its solicitor. Private discussion with the mediator was possible in a further chat room to which the other party did not have access. The experiment thus created a virtual suite of mediation rooms at almost no cost. It was certainly less expensive than the city centre hotel or business centre in which mediation meetings are often held and, depending on your circumstances, more comfortable, too.
The pace then went as fast as the parties wished, held back only by their speed of thought and typing. Before long, the five participants generated a large amount of information and this accelerated once the mediation was in open session.
Apart from the fact that the parties do not come face to face (which can have both advantages and disadvantages), the mediation proceeded in pretty much orthodox fashion. The mediator went back and forth between the parties asking them to question the merits of their own cases, consider the merits of the other party's and make proposals for settlement.
The mediation reached a successful settlement within four working days. The result was posted in the open chat room. Compared with a live mediation that may seem a long time. However, during the process, the parties and their solicitors were able to get on with many of the activities of their normal working day. The actual time spent on the mediation during those four days was, in fact, only six or seven hours.
With careful thought and preparation, mediation on the web could bring about dramatic cost savings for litigants. If you involve your lawyers, they will only charge for the time engaged in preparing for the mediation and for the online time. The "live" alternative involves meeting for two days or so, often on neutral ground. This may be in a hotel, which can be expensive. More significantly, you will usually pay for your lawyers' full-time attendance. This does not happen in a chat-room mediation.
It seems to me that chat room mediation could also be a good way of dealing with relatively small disputes that do not justify the involvement of lawyers. A commercial manager could organise an online mediation in appropriate cases and handle it from his or her desk.
My colleague at TLT also reported some less obvious advantages arising out of the fact that everything said is in writing and is recorded. Careful thought has to be put into each response to a question from the mediator or the opposing party. That accentuates one of the advantages of mediation in ensuring that the parties better understand its own and the other side's case.
So what of the future? The ADR Group, in conjunction with TheClaimRoom.com, plans to market online mediations to the legal profession. The medium will not be appropriate for all cases and it is likely that even parties used to mediation will need a little practice in the chat room version. Still, it does seem an attractive option.
Simon Goss is head of construction at TLT solicitors in Bristol.