News of megastars Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s divorce has dominated newspapers and social media worldwide this week and is a timely reminder of how people in the public eye have to deal with intense media interest in the difficulties they face in their private lives.
According to the media, Angelina Jolie has hired Laura Wasser, an attorney in California who has represented a number of high profile clients, and she has filed for divorce on the basis of irreconcilable differences (which is not available to couples in England and Wales, where, in order to start divorce proceedings straight away, a fault based ground has to be used). The couple will now have to negotiate and agree the arrangements for their six children and the division of their alleged $400m fortune. There are a number of ways of resolving disputes following separation and Laura Wasser has a reputation for her negotiation skills and ability to protect clients from the media spotlight.
One of the best ways to ensure that the terms of any divorce, whether high profile or not, are kept out of the press is to conduct proceedings in an entirely private forum such as mediation, using a private judge or arbitration. As a practising mediator, I assist clients in resolving issues outside of court and I regularly advise them about the benefits of mediation, some of which are:
- Clients set the agenda – clients choose what they want to cover in mediation and we revisit this at the start of each session. This means that couples are not forced to stick to an agenda laid out by their lawyers or the court and they can immediately cover what is important to each of them.
- It is child focused – children are invariably at the centre of the discussions between my mediation clients. We talk about what they think will be best for their children, what their children might be feeling and what they would think about the proposals being put forward. Some mediators are trained to meet with children, which means they can attend a mediation session too if appropriate. In recent press coverage about the dispute between Madonna and Guy Ritchie in relation to the arrangements for their 16 year old son Rocco, it was reported that he took part in the mediation and was able to give his views and explain what he wanted to achieve. This involvement can be useful for children of a certain age in helping them understand why particular decisions are being made about them. Even when children do not attend mediation, it is the mediator’s job to make sure they have a voice and a presence by asking questions about them and how they might be feeling.
- Aimed at problem solving – mediation is about problem solving and sharing ideas together. I encourage clients to come up with a range of solutions, even if some do not reflect the outcome they want to achieve, so that we can test the reality of them together and each will hear one another’s views on why something will or won’t work. This helps move clients away from a purely tactical approach or positioning, which often happens when negotiations take place through solicitors or at court. When couples reach solutions together, they are more likely to accept and stick to it going forward. Children will also be more receptive to an arrangement if both parents present it together.
- Flexible and tailor made solutions – solutions reached in mediation can be tailored to suit the family. This might be particularly important for high profile couples, who may travel or work away frequently, or for families living in less traditional circumstances. Control and flexibility is something that can be lost in the court arena when Judges have to impose decisions based on the limited information available. As a mediator, I advise couples about the types of orders courts make in children and financial proceedings and I help them to come up with their own creative solutions which may be put in place for an interim period while it is trialled or for the long term.
- Keeping it private – mediation is an entirely private process and clients are assured that details of the discussions had, information disclosed or decisions made will not be reported. This helps protect clients and their families from details of their separation being analysed in the media. Judgments from the proceedings involving Madonna and Guy in December and March have both been reported and further applications had been made to deal with other press reporting restrictions. The Judge hearing the case praised Madonna and Guy for first trying in mediation with Rocco although this ultimately broke down. Had they been able to resolve their dispute with the mediator, it is possible that the details which were reported of the proceedings in London and New York (which only concluded earlier this month) would have been limited. If mediation is successful, it is also a much quicker way of resolving issues that otherwise could have resulted in protracted and expensive court proceedings.
- Facilitating a dialogue – privilege is a fundamental principle of mediation, which means that discussions which take place with the mediator (save for the disclosure of open financial information) cannot be referred to by clients and their lawyers in any court proceedings. This means that clients can accept or concede points without fear of being held to it later if an overall resolution has not been possible. The acknowledgement or acceptance of the other person’s position often encourages further discussion and builds trust between the parties.
- Easing the communication – a carefully managed mediation gives couples the chance to express their feelings and to get important points off their chest. It can be a powerful way of helping people feel heard and moving on. Often, some of the smaller issues about which they have not had the chance to talk can be resolved relatively easily, which opens the line of communication for the more important and longer term arrangements. Ultimately, if parents are able to resolve matters together, they often have a better relationship after mediation has concluded, which helps with their ability to co-parent from separate houses (or possibly cities or countries) later on and this also benefits their children.
Whether I work with clients as their lawyer in litigation or mediator, it is important to help them articulate what they want to achieve and to get them through it as quickly and painlessly as possible.