Brendan Donaghy, March 2012
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) mediation service is offered free of charge to tenants of the organisation who find themselves in dispute with a neighbour. Since its launch ten years ago, several thousand people have received help with their conflict. In addition, the mediation service has delivered training on principles of conflict resolution to hundreds of NIHE staff, as well as to staff from other organisations which work closely with the NIHE. Having just accepted our 1000th case referral, what lessons have been learned along the way?
Big is Beautiful
For a few years we operated with a small in-house team of full time, trained mediators. This worked reasonably well for a time, although there will always be question marks about how truly independent and impartial an in-house service can be. In the end, however, it was operational reasons which prompted us to move away from this model of provision. Staff turnover meant that mediators were often leaving the section just as they were attaining a decent level of experience. In addition, the service’s caseload continued to grow, which meant that we were running the risk of mediators being asked to take on too many cases. Realising that, when it comes to mediation services, big is beautiful, we looked at different ways to provide the service.
Paid or Voluntary Mediators?
For a short period we operated using a panel of trained mediation volunteers. This didn’t work as well as we had hoped. Experience had taught us that the sooner we get involved in a dispute once it has been referred, the better. There is less opportunity for further incidents, while parties often step back and draw breath, curious to see what mediation will bring. Using volunteers, we lost this capacity to react quickly. Most of our volunteers had full time jobs. They weren’t able to drop everything and make themselves available at our request. Many offered their services on the assumption that they’d be able to mediate in the evenings or the weekends, not realising that most of our tenants preferred not to meet us at these times. Some offered their services without realising how much time would be required for each dispute. In short, the system didn’t work for us and we abandoned it fairly quickly.
In an attempt to exercise more control over the process, we took the decision to pay mediators for their time. A panel of ten experienced mediators was recruited in 2009. That number has now grown to over thirty, mostly drawn from within Northern Ireland, but with a few based in the border counties of the Irish republic. The mediators are employed by the NIHE on a sessional basis. When they aren’t working for us, they are running their own mediation services, or working as and when required for bodies like the Parades Commission, Family Mediation NI, Mediation NI or the Disability Conciliation Service NI. The number and geographical spread of our mediation panel ensures that we don’t overload individual mediators with too many cases. It also means that mediators spend more time mediating and less time travelling to the meetings. This helps us keep costs down and provide a decent service to our tenants at the same time.
Co Workers or Lone Rangers?
As far as a quality mediation process is concerned, there are good arguments to be made for both co working and solo mediators. We’ve tried both and have settled on solo working, though not exclusively so. There is an element of risk in this, admittedly, given that most of our meetings are carried out in the homes of those involved in the dispute. Some of the people referred to us have mental health or addiction problems and occasionally some will have criminal convictions for violence or sexual offences. These risks are minimised, however, by a screening process which starts in our district offices and which is based on the local knowledge of the NIHE’s housing officers and neighbourhood officers. The disadvantages of working in pairs are mainly logistical. It doubles the resources required to get the job done, for one thing. Moreover, two people landing on the doorstep creates a different dynamic than one. Housing officers traditionally visit alone, as do district nurses and health care workers. Police and debt collectors tend to arrive in pairs. Mediators are there to provide a service, not to bring bad news or a threat of some description.
Systemic Problems v Personal Disputes
On a recent visit, the tenant invited the mediator to sit down, then walked across the room and turned his television up. When the mediator queried this, the tenant told her that he didn’t want his neighbour upstairs to overhear the conversation. The mediator thought this slightly odd behaviour until she spoke later with the neighbour upstairs, who told her that he was able to hear clearly the tenant speaking on the phone. In another dispute, the garden right outside a ground floor tenant’s living room window belonged to the couple upstairs. The kids from upstairs played regularly in their garden and were often joined by their friends. On a regular basis, the man told the mediator, the kids would climb on his window sill and peer in at him while he sat watching television. These are examples of disputes caused by faults in the system, rather than faulty personalities. It is vital that mediators do not allow the personalisation of what are systemic problems. The heat can be taken out of many disputes if the neighbours can see that they share a problem rather than a dispute.
Many neighbour – neighbour mediation services boast impressive success rates. Take a closer look, however, and you find that the impressive outcome figures are built upon an equally impressive screening system: cases involving mental health issues, alcohol abuse, violence or the threat of violence, criminal behaviour, or legal action, are deemed to be ‘unsuitable’ for mediation and sent back to the council or housing officer who referred them. In short, the mediation services walk away from disputes which do not have at their core a rational, relational context. This approach could be seen as an admission that mediation has a strictly limited role in neighbour – neighbour conflict on social housing estates. It could be viewed as an acknowledgement that it can be effective only at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, with the relatively easy cases.
In contrast, the NIHE mediation service has attempted to tackle the more intractable conflicts by developing close partnerships with other organisations. Where ‘classic’ mediation – the facilitation of a dialogue between individuals or groups in dispute – is judged to be inappropriate or has proven to be ineffective, we refer the parties on, with their full consent, to others who may be better able to offer the kind of assistance required. We have established strong working relationships with restorative justice groups who are based in and work on many of our estates. Northern Ireland Alternatives (NIA) and Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI) help us fill the gaps in the service we provide. These groups can provide the kind of longer term, intensive support to individuals and families that a mediation service – any mediation service – cannot. Over many years, they have built up trust and acceptance in their communities for their roles as impartial third parties and are often the first port of call for people having difficulties with neighbours. Many of these people are NIHE tenants, so it makes sense for us to support the work of these trained and accredited groups where our paths cross. Similarly, Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders provides support to tenants at risk of losing their tenancy as a result of the behaviour of one or more members of the household.
Since 2002, the NIHE mediation service and its partner organisations have assisted literally thousands of people with their disputes. While it is difficult to measure comprehensively how effective it has been, it is safe to say that many disputing parties who have used the service could otherwise have landed before the courts had they not been offered the use of a mediation service or a restorative justice support package. Even tenants whose disputes would never have escalated to that level have benefited from the service. Low level conflicts can rumble on for years, seriously damaging the quality of life – and often the health - of those involved. Mediation offers the chance for these people to transform their situation, if they choose to take up the offer. Participation is entirely voluntary. The dispute belongs to those involved, after all. They must be allowed the courtesy of deciding how it is to be resolved.