Using mediation to resolve family issues

You don’t know what the temperature of the mediator’s office will be, so layers! If you know anything about living in the Lower Mainland — layers, layers, layers, right?! Take that approach to going to see your mediator. Full video transcript.

You and your ex have decided to give mediation a try. You’ve learned it can be a less costly, faster, and more effective way to resolve your family issues than going to court. Here, we walk you through how family mediation works and how to prepare for it. We also offer tips about how to be successful on the day of your mediation.

What you should know

How mediation works

You and your ex will meet with a trained, neutral person, called a mediator, whom you’ve both agreed to use. Their job is to help you work through your issues. They don’t make decisions for you. Rather, they help you arrive at a solution you both can live with.

Here’s a rundown of the process. Typically, the mediator meets with each of you separately before the mediation. This is partly so they can screen for problems — such as family violence — which may make mediation unsuitable. 

If mediation is appropriate in your case, the mediator will work with you to pick a date for the session. The mediation itself may take place in person at the mediator’s office. Or it could happen online or by phone. The mediator will go over the process and describe any ground rules, such as how all discussions must be kept confidential.

During the mediation, each of you will have a chance to explain your perspective and describe what you want. The mediator may ask questions and help frame issues. At points, they may ask to meet separately with each of you to discuss specific issues. This is called caucusing.

You may reach an agreement at the end of one session or after a couple of sessions.

For more on what the process can involve, these videos from Mediate BC highlight the experiences of couples who have used mediation. 

The mediator’s role is to help you talk with each other

The mediator is a trained professional. Many mediators are lawyers, but they don’t have to be. They don’t work for either you or your ex. They can’t take sides or give legal advice. Their role as a neutral facilitator is to help you and your ex talk with each other and find a solution you can agree on. They can shape the negotiation — helping to clear up misunderstandings and reduce tension — but they can’t make decisions for you or force you to accept a solution.

You can go to mediation with or without a lawyer helping you

If you want to, you can hire a lawyer to work with you for some or all of the mediation process. (And you may want to hire a lawyer, especially if there are complex legal or financial issues.) But you don’t have to. You can represent yourself, especially since no specialized knowledge is required. You may be able to bring a family member or friend for support, so long as everyone agrees.

If you mediate without a lawyer working for you, you’ll need to get legal advice before you sign any written agreements at the end of the mediation. To find a lawyer, you can start with these free and low-cost options for legal advice.

What happens at the end of a mediation session

During the mediation, you and your ex may reach an agreement on some or all of your family law issues. If your mediator is also a lawyer, they may prepare a document that records your agreement. This might take the form of a separation agreement, consent order, or minutes of settlement. 

You and your ex can sign the document at the end of the mediation session. If you don’t have a lawyer working for you, you will have to get independent legal advice before you sign any document recording your agreement. Once filed with a court, a separation agreement or consent order becomes enforceable like a court order.

If you don’t reach an agreement, the mediator may discuss scheduling another session. If it isn’t possible to resolve your family law issues by mediation, there are other options. These include arbitration and going to court.

Getting ready for mediation

When you separate, you may have lots of questions about the issues in dispute. It can be helpful to talk to a lawyer about those issues — whether it’s parenting, support, property division or something else. A family law lawyer can explain the law and give you legal advice about your options. They can also describe the legal processes and costs involved in resolving your issues in court and out of court, including mediation. 

To find a lawyer, see these options for legal help.

Step 2. Set expectations with yourself

Before mediation, you may not know what to expect. After getting legal advice, take some time to think about your family law issues and identify the goals you’d like to achieve. What’s important to you and why? What do you think is important to your ex? What’s the best outcome you could hope for, and the worst you might expect? What’s best for the children? What would a fair deal look like to you? 

Write your expectations down. Put the date on the document. You don’t have to share it with the mediator (or with anyone, for that matter). It’s an important piece of personal goal-setting that will get you in the right mindset for mediation. Preparing in this way can help you feel calm, prepared, and confident. 

Step 3. Find a mediator

There are several ways to find a mediator.

One is through the network of Family Justice Centres across the province. Each centre is staffed with family justice counsellors. They can provide mediation for free to families going through a breakup. 

To find a private mediator, ask your lawyer (if you have one) for a referral. Or talk to someone you know who’s been through a successful family law mediation.  

Another option is to search Mediate BC’s roster of family mediators or the directory of professionals maintained by the ADR Institute of BC. These directories list many (though not all) trained family mediators in BC. You can review the mediator’s experience, qualifications, and website. See if their background, approach, and personality would be a good fit for you.

Step 4. Exchange information beforehand

Before your scheduled mediation meeting, you and your spouse usually have to exchange complete and accurate financial information. This is typically done by filling out a form called a financial statement. It sets out your income and expenses as well as your assets and debts. You also have to attach supporting documents, including income tax returns, paystubs or other proof of income, and so on. 

If one of you is self-employed, additional financial documents — such as corporate tax returns — must be provided.

Setting yourself up for success on mediation day

Step 1. Don’t forget to eat

Mediation day is here. You might be a bit nervous, and that’s okay. It’s important to start off the day with a good breakfast. You’ll be able to concentrate and have the energy you need to participate in the mediation. Don’t have too much coffee, though, as you want to stay calm (and not have to take frequent bathroom breaks).

Step 2. Be on time

Plan out in advance how you’re going to get to the mediation. Allow enough time for traffic issues, finding the mediator’s office, and anything unexpected that might come up.

Step 3. Dress comfortably

Family mediations can be emotional and are often long. You want to be as comfortable as possible for the duration of the meeting. (One word: layers!) There is no dress code for mediations, but it’s a good idea to aim for professional casual. 

Step 4. Be calm and communicate respectfully

While it might be tempting, don’t take any substances to relax you beforehand. They could affect your ability to focus and communicate clearly. They could also affect your judgment. You’ll need to accurately appreciate what compromises and decisions you need to make that are in your best interests (and if you have children, their best interests).

At the mediation, be polite. You don’t have to agree with what your ex says, but you do need to listen with an open mind to try to understand where they are coming from. Avoid raising your voice, even if your ex does. Stay composed. Don’t say hurtful things just because they’re hurtful. 

Bonus tip. Being honest and vulnerable positions you to find compromise

A key feature of mediation is compromise. But that isn’t always easy to do in a family law matter. By their nature, family law conflicts are emotional. They involve hurt, sadness, and anger towards a former spouse. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is give them anything. It takes courage to try to work out a resolution with this person — to trust your ex with your whole fragile story. But that leap, if you can make it, may reward you in spades — with the freedom to move on with your life. 

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in March 2022
  • Time to read: 7 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

JP Boyd, KC, Boyd Arbitration Chambers

JP Boyd, KC

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