David Purnell, former Clerk of FWCC and former convener of the AWPS Nominations Committee, is a member of Canberra Friends Meeting, Australia. He spoke recently at the 30th anniversary dinner to celebrate the mediation service he helped set up in Canberra. This is a summary of his talk.
The impetus for our service was the formation of the Community Justice Centres pilot project in Sydney in 1980 “to provide a means of settling the sort of disputes that conventional court-based procedures are unable to resolve satisfactorily”. The focus was on domestic and neighbourhood disputes, and both sides of politics supported it. The CJCs were from the beginning incorporated into the government bureaucracy.
Reflecting on community mediation, Wendy Faulkes (the first CJC director) said part of the impetus for the mediation movement was that people movements reacted against state control and wanted to choose a form of conflict resolution that gave them power and self-determination. The outcome was the training of mediators from all sections of the community as ‘process professionals’ rather than ‘content professionals’. This training drew on political science, peace studies, education, policing, government, town planning and the social sciences.
In Canberra, a number of people had already been trying to use alternative approaches to resolving conflict, so a committee was formed to begin working for a similar service in our region. We then lobbied the ACT government and managed to persuade them to set up a pilot scheme. The funding for the pilot scheme was $100,000 in the 1989-90 ACT budget. At the beginning of 1990, after a selection process, three staff opened the doors of CRS at the old Acton House. They were joined soon afterwards by a fourth working on a youth mediation project. There was a panel of 45 mediators, and they went through a solid training program.
In the first year, there were 371 referrals and 170 mediations, covering a wide range of disputes. In the annual report in 1991 it was stated that “Most people using CRS welcome the neutrality, impartiality and skills of the mediators, and the accessibility and quality of the service generally…. 90% of parties attending a mediation session reached an agreement…and 95% expressed satisfaction with the service. It is estimated that each dispute accepted by the service represents a saving to the community of over $1700 in costs associated with litigation, violence and continued conflict”. Many disputes were referred by other agencies including police, legal aid, and government. A Migrant Access project ensured that people from non-English backgrounds were among the panel and the clients. A youth mediation project called Resolve was based on the view that “mediation is developmentally appropriate for adolescents and other young people in that it provides a balance between autonomy and interdependence”.
Government funding for CRS rose from the initial $100,000 to $134,000 in the second year (after the pilot became an ongoing service), and $198,000 in the third year. In 1991-2 there were 220 mediations, including many rental bond disputes which were automatically sent to CRS at the end of tenancies when issues of releasing the bond money were involved. Training was stepped up to ensure mediators had a good grasp of family mediation, tenancy law, business, youth and cross-cultural issues. By this time it was clear that CRS was making an impact on the Canberra community. It was also setting high standards for mediator training and accreditation, and this proved important in contributing to the Australia-wide growth in mediation and the need to achieve national standards. CRS was also being asked to train people in such agencies as the Women’s Information and Referral Centre, the ACT Planning Authority, the Tax Office, Woden Community Service, the ANU and the Defence Department.
Expansion in 1993 and 1994 saw the number of mediators reach 50, and the annual funding rise to over $400,000. Specialist training for family law mediation was increasing. I could go on reciting the way in which CRS grew in every way during the 1990s. Its primary role in resolving conflict remained clear – to offer a space for people to listen to each other, to be heard, and to work through to outcomes that were mutually agreed and beneficial. Whether we were assisting individuals or groups, we used a co-mediation model which had the advantage of modelling good communication, mutual support, and being matched with those in dispute (eg male/female, old/young, anglo/other). The feedback remained very positive from clients, the training was constantly developed, and the intake staff became increasingly pivotal to an effective service.
After thirty years, we are going through another transition in CRS, and I hope the ideals and values that have stood us well in the past will continue to guide and strengthen all involved in the future.