The secret code for conflict resolution

Christina Rees, Shadow Justice Minister, chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Alternative Dispute Resolution on 18th October 2016, as they explored community mediation, peer mediation and restorative justice.  Considering that each of these approaches is a whole world of its own, the agenda was ambitious, but as each speaker unpacked their thinking, some strong connections emerged. 


Ellis Brooks, who supports the Peer Mediation Network as part of the Peace Education work of Quakers in Britain, opened his comments with a rousing ‘It’s not fair!’ citing it as the common refrain of young people who do not feel heard, or believed, or fairly treated.  He said it’s the same for street children in Kabul scrounging bread as for young people in the UK who feel ‘dissed’ or disrespected.  He built well on the introduction provided by Bruce Bourne, Civil Mediation Council board member, who had used crowing cockerels to give some colour to his explanation of community mediation, and told a touching happy ending to the story of one elderly lady’s distress and sleepless nights.  Both speakers emphasised how mediation gives people a voice, and a safe place to resolve their conflict.  Kezia and Bode, students at Bacon’s College in Rotherhithe learned their peer mediation skills at school, and are also using them to great effect in their local community, in partnership with Southwark Mediation Centre, represented by Dave Walker, MBE. A passionate advocate of alternative dispute resolution for over 30 years, he claimed to hold the secret code for resolving all the conflict in the world - 461/3039, and promised to reveal the answer at the end of the session.


Both young people have been involved in resolving conflict in local families. Bode mediated between a mother and her teenage son who was threatening to move out, ultimately helping each of them to see the other’s perspective.  Kezia was nervous the first time she was asked to mediate for adults, until she got started and realised the parties behaved exactly the same as the Year 7’s with whom she was more used to dealing at school.  As a 17 year old she was able to ‘point out the things that brought them together rather than the things that divided them’.


In restorative justice we often talk about the ‘ripple effect’ and Ellis Brooks has found during his research that in schools where peer mediation is carried out, 85% of issues brought by young people to mediation were fully or partially resolved. That’s a powerful ripple when you consider the potential knife crime, hate crime and bullying that is averted by resolving conflict positively.  Teachers feel the positive ripples of less class disruption, and children and young people who are more focussed on their learning have better educational outcomes.  Longer term, if a whole generation of young people could learn positive conflict resolution techniques at an early age, they would be empowered to interact with their peers, future colleagues, and society at large in a fundamentally different way.  Andrew Sims has introduced mediation skills in primary schools, secondary schools and universities, and believes that there is a place for mediation at all stages of education.  How sad he was when one primary school mediator moved to senior school and found no place for the mediation he had thought was normal - an early lesson for that child about growing up in a world that does not recognise the power of alternative dispute resolution.

Jon Collins, CEO of the Restorative Justice Council described the two sides of the restorative justice coin - the satisfaction levels experienced by victims of crime who have been able to meet the offender through a restorative justice conference,  and the significantly reduced re-offending rates arising from offenders facing up to the impact of their actions on victims. This can work for any victim and offender, however serious the crime and at every stage of the criminal justice system.


As Norma Gould, Assistant Headteacher of Bacon’s College said, it is a normal for young people to engage in conflict in the process of working out who they are, but it does not need to be destructive.  Young people who learn to face up to the impact of their actions on other people, look them in the eye and take responsibility for repairing the damage are growing and learning in the process.  This model of peer mediation is similar to the principles of a restorative justice conference - offenders face their victims, take responsibility, show remorse, and in the process, release their victims from some of the hurt, rage and angry questions that torment them.  In many neighbourhood disputes, conflict arises from misunderstandings and misconceptions, which are only reinforced and often escalated by silence and the refusal to communicate.  Dr Paulette Morris of CIArb explained how cuts to funding have reduced spending by Local Authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners on supporting Community Mediation in many areas; a short term saving which will cause long term damage and ultimately cost more in policing anti-social behaviour and even violence.  Giving frustrated people; old or young, a voice and a place to be heard is critical to resolving conflict.


Before revealing the secret code, Dave Walker said that ceasefires don’t come about because the warring parties just wake up and decide to stop shooting at each other on the same random day. Ceasefires are negotiated and negotiation requires communication. He asserted that using the code could save a big chunk of the £356bn defence budget, but based on what the group had heard, it could also resolve workplace disputes, improve safeguarding and educational outcomes for children, and significantly reduce crime and anti-social behaviour, saving Police and NHS time and money.  This panacea is featured on page 17 of the Argos catalogue - item 461/3039 is a set of table and chairs.