Just as many other industries are increasingly turning to web-based solutions, online mediation during the COVID-19 outbreak is on the rise. Considering the economic impact of the coronavirus, I am reducing my hourly fee for the next 60 days to $100/hr. for all scheduled mediations in April and May. This is to help folks that are stretched thin and need to get claims resolved.
Still, in-person mediation with desired social distancing (6 feet or more) is achievable, and traditional mediations can be held with precautions. Opening sessions can be deferred. Private caucus rooms will insulate participants.
Online Mediation During the COVID-19 Outbreak: How It Works
The pandemic has heightened interest in, and the frequency of online mediation services. Mediators largely use Zoom. You need a recent portable or desktop computer. I use a Surface 7 with an integrated camera that works fine with Zoom. Participants must have a strong and secure internet connection to avoid video and audio lags or disruption. The computer should have an integrated microphone, or you can buy a higher quality microphone and headset that attaches through your USB port. Most new laptops or notebooks have cameras and microphones that are adequate. After-market cameras that attach to older units are relatively inexpensive.
Zoom provides a way to conduct joint sessions and private breakout sessions. It has a virtual waiting room where attendees see a screen, but depending on the host’s settings they may or may not be able to communicate with other participants until the mediator-host opens the meeting room to all at the same time. Zoom can allow the mediator to create break-out groups and move participants into and out of different caucuses. The client and attorney may speak confidentially by having the mediator exit the break-out room. There are also group chat and break-out chat features.
Confidentiality and privacy are significant concerns. The participants during an online session must be in a room where they can speak without interruption and without being heard. Eavesdropping of any sort and recording is not allowed. The room must be private. Use of WiFi at coffee shops or other public areas is not secure and creates unacceptable confidentiality problems.
Documents can be shared by screen-sharing technology within Zoom. The mediators can share his or her screen, create a settlement agreement, and then participants can actually sign the document using a virtual “annotation” feature on their screen where you can draw lines with the mouse to sign your name on the shared screen. Very handy.
The technology may fail, or there may be interruptions in WiFi service. For this reason, the participants should share their cell phone numbers with the mediator in advance. Technical glitches are not uncommon, but advance contingency planning largely mitigates the problem caused by hiccups in technology. Zoom is free to the participants. The mediator pays a small monthly fee. Sessions over 40 minutes require a paid subscription.
Online mediation during the COVID-19 outbreak is an excellent tool. It reduces expense and travel-related anxiety during difficult times, and beyond that, it’s useful in high-conflict disputes where personal interaction is undesirable.