Fair play: the role of “ground rules” in a mediation

You have made an appointment with the mediator, you have signed and returned the mediation agreement, and now you are in the chair in the mediator’s consulting room, not entirely sure what comes next.

Many mediators will start the first mediation meeting by going through ground rules for the mediation process.

Ground rules set the stage for a respectful and productive conversation. Many of them provide for the rules of etiquette that apply in any good social interaction, but which are often forgotten when tempers are raised. By agreeing upon and abiding by ground rules, a safe environment is created in which to engage fruitfully. This may not be possible outside of the mediator’s consulting room.

A mediator may suggest her own set of ground rules and ask the parties to agree to them, or may ask the parties to come up with their own ground rules. The sort of ground rules a mediator may ask parties to agree to, include:

  • Speak for yourself. Avoid engaging in blame and criticism of the other person.
  • One person speaks at a time. Do not interrupt. (The mediator reserves the right to interrupt in order to keep proceedings on track.)
  • Each person is entitled to a fair opportunity to express themselves fully.
  • Listen to understand, and delay formulating a response until you are sure that you understand what the other person is trying to communicate.
  • Treat one another with dignity and respect. No raised voices or abusive language.
  • Focus on building an agreement for the future, not rehashing the past.
  • Cell phones should be turned off, and placed out of sight, so as not to be a distraction.
  • Keep what is said in the mediation sessions, confidential.

Having agreed to these rules of engagement, the mediator will gently remind the parties of their agreement, should their communication stray away from what was agreed. In this way, the mediator aims to hold the space for both parties to fully and frankly express themselves, be heard, and offer constructive input.

Some mediators do not like to introduce ground rules, as they feel it places them in the position of a parent, refereeing squabbles between two ill-disciplined children. They prefer to expect the best from the parties, and only intervene with guidance if and when problems arise. The difficulty that arises with this approach, is that one party may feel that the mediator is showing bias against him or her, should the mediator raise ground rules after the process is already underway.

Rose Attorneys offers mediation services, with a special focus on divorce mediation.

In any divorce proceedings, a dialogue facilitated by a mediator can bring matters to a quicker and more peaceful resolution than proceeding at once to issuing summons and exchanging proposals via attorneys and court documents.

Especially where a divorcing couple must co-parent in future, a mediation process can be invaluable. While litigating tends to harden positions and further damage the parties’ relationship, mediation offers the possibility of reducing tensions, and building new foundations for a constructive future co-parenting relationship.

If you are interested in more information about divorce mediation, contact Camilla Rose at camilla@roseattorneys.co.za or 074 697 2048.

What is “extinctive prescription” and why is it so important?

In legal proceedings, if a debtor successfully raises the defence of “extinctive prescription”, then the claim against him or her is made permanently unenforceable. This will be the case regardless of whether the claim is legally valid in all respects, or the creditor enforcing the claim has ample or even irrefutable evidence proving his or her claim.

The defence becomes available as a result of a period of time, set out in the law, having passed since the claim came into being. These periods of time are, largely, set out in the Prescription Act.

If a debtor satisfies a claim – for example, repays a debt – despite the fact that the defence of extinctive prescription was available to him or her because of the length of time that had passed since the debt became due, she or he cannot insist on repayment of the money paid. The debtor must raise the defence before satisfying the claim, or will have lost the opportunity. Where the claim is in court, the court is not allowed to raise the matter of prescription of its own accord, thereby potentially depriving a creditor of satisfaction of its claim.

These are the prescription periods set out in the Act:

  • Three years: debts not covered specifically elsewhere in the Act of other legislation;
  • Six years: debts arising from bills of exchange or negotiable instruments (such as cheques or promissory notes), or notarial contracts (with exceptions);
  • Fifteen years: debts to the state arising from sales, leases, loans or advances (with exceptions);
  • Thirty years: debts secured by mortgage bond, debts in respect of which a judgment has been issued, taxation debts (eg income tax, VAT), and debts to the state in respect of profits and royalties.

The prescription period starts to run as soon as the debt becomes legally due. A debt does not become due in law until the creditor is – or ought to be through the exercise of reasonable care – aware of the identity of the debtor and the facts giving rise to the debt. For example, where a person has suffered harm but has not been able to ascertain who caused the harm despite exercising reasonable care, the claim for damages for that harm will not prescribe at once.

Certain events delay the running of prescription, for example the creditor lacking legal competence (due to factors such as youth or a period of mental incapacity).

Prescription can be interrupted by the debtor acknowledging his or her liability, or the creditor serving upon the debtor legal process claiming the debt. If the creditor manages to serve summons on the debtor claiming payment of the debt one day shy of the three year period ending, then the claim will remain valid pending finalisation of the court case.