The law is all encompassing. Its protective mantle extends to every human being regardless of race, color, religion, gender, and social status. Its voice should therefore be heard by everyone and its guiding light should be readily accessible especially to those who need it the most. Mindful of this principle, one is easily inspired by the efforts students, barristers, and solicitors are putting into the Street Law Project. Spreading the word of justice to the lay people at the grass roots level is not only a challenging endeavor but is also a greatly rewarding experience.
In line with the UK’s Street Law program, some schools include mediation assistance as one of their activities through the Mediation Friends Project. This is a pioneering initiative in which students are trained in mediation so they can provide free support to otherwise unrepresented parties in mediation. The project’s goals are to provide assistance to the unrepresented parties and to promote the use of mediation as a form of alternative dispute resolution.
This undertaking is probably one of the most important aspects of legal advocacy that must make its solid mark on public awareness especially with the birth of the Woolf reforms which revolutionized the civil law system in England and Wales. These reforms paved the way for the promotion of the Alternative Dispute Resolution which includes Mediation as one of its primary measures.
Mediation, as an alternative dispute resolution scheme, is the legal system at its most practical application. It brings the law straight into the heart of the community and by doing so, introduces a new image often unseen by the public. By providing venue for the people to settle their disputes amicably, mediation has transformed the spectator into an actual participant in the administration of justice and in order to satisfy its ends, assistance from the learned therefore becomes necessary.
Sadly, the law with its vast complexity is viewed by many as a punitive fault-finding mechanism which favours the rich and the powerful more than the ignorant and the underprivileged. More often, people tend to avoid litigation due to the financial burden and too much time required by the process even if it means sacrificing their very own rights and interests. It is for this very reason that the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is encouraged by the courts as a matter of course pursuant to the legislative mandate enshrined in the Civil Procedure Rules. Though it does not involve extensive knowledge of the law, disputing parties are still entitled to sufficient advice and guidance for the protection of their rights. Mediation and the other forms of ADR never guarantee fair settlement if a party is unaware of his options and the lawful extent of his claim. An abusive party could easily tilt the process in his favour absent any legal and informational support for the other specially with the prodding of an enterprising lawyer.
Unrepresented parties are likened to a litigant in person free employment advice who is seen by most judges as a problem. According to the Judicial Studies Board Journal Issue 15 published in 2002, litigants in person often jeopardize their own rights due to lack of knowledge of procedures and legal remedies available in their case. They may make point, which to lay people appear “right”, but which have no foundation in law.
Through extending assistance to the unrepresented, the Mediation Friends volunteers have leveled the playing fields thus ensuring fair settlements among parties in dispute. Consequently, they have also contributed to the much-needed de-congestion of court dockets thereby giving more opportunity for the courts to attend to more pressing matters not otherwise subject to settlement or such other cases no longer falling within the ADR. As future officers of the court, law students are no stranger to the idea that the management of cases do not lie exclusively in the hands of the judges. Lawyers are indispensable players in the whole legal drama. It becomes an integral part of their role to assist the court in advancing justice in a less burdensome and less costly manner. As such, the Civil Procedure Rules urges the court, and of course its officers, to encourage the use of alternative settlement of disputes.