In 2008 the European Union adopted the EU Directive on Certain Aspects of Mediation in Civil and Commercial Matters (2008/52/EC) on mediation in civil and commercial disputes. The objective is to “create a workable, light-touch Directive, which reflects existing guidelines and best practice and can serve to encourage the wider use of mediation across the EU. The Directive was not the first attempt to promote mediation. The EU has published a Green paper, two Directives on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in consumer disputes and Online Dispute Resolution, and has sponsored the drafting of a European Code of Mediators. In addition, at the supranational level, UNCITRAL had approved a set of conciliation rules in 1980, and a model law in 2002 on international commercial conciliation.
The EU Directive requires Member States to establish mediation systems in crossborder disputes, but also invites Member States to consider if such systems can be made applicable to domestic matters, even if some Member States had already introduced non-adjudicative methods in their legal systems. The Directive covers the essential issues concerning mediation, within a lightly-regulated framework: with regard to confidentiality (Art. 7) what is disclosed in a mediation session must not be disclosed later by the parties in a judicial or arbitral proceedings (exceptions may be established only for the protection of fundamental public interest, such as personal or psychological integrity); limitation periods will be suspended during mediation (Art. 8); judicial enforceability of the settlement agreement must be guaranteed (Art. 6).
Three approaches to the promotion of mediation exist today in continental Europe12: the “pragmatic approach” exemplified by Denmark and the Netherlands, and consisting of first experimenting with pilot-projects, followed by regulation; the “cultural approach” exemplified by Switzerland, where the education of lawyers to nonadjudicative methods is paramount, and where a number of traditional conciliation practices within the judiciary itself render litigation a “last resort method”; the “legalistic approach” exemplified by some major European states, among them France, Spain and Italy, where first a comprehensive regulation on mediation is established, and then the results are evaluated.
Once the choice to regulate has been made, there can be different ways to approach regulation itself: 1) market regulation (generally recommended only for high-end commercial disputes); 2) self-regulation by a community or industry; 3) formal regulating framework, defined by legal parameters; 4) formal comprehensive legislation.
The EU approach has been to create a “formal framework”. Incentives, sanctions and detailed regulation have been left to the Member States to decide. The formal framework is therefore a flexible one, allowing to adopt a variety of mechanisms. Out of the 28 EU members, 22 have established an accreditation system for mediators, and 15 provide legal aid for destitute litigants in mediation. Only 10 Member States allow the judge to order the parties to attempt mediation before commencing litigation, and just 6 States have some form of mandatory mediation on the basis of the disputed matter13.
EU Member States in fact are not prevented from requiring that parties participate in a mediation proceeding, or to an informative session on mediation, as long as the right to having one’s day in court is preserved, and the proceeding is not exceedingly long or expensive14. Compelling mediation is a less than optimal solution, but in the short- to medium-term, it might be considered the only option to jumpstart mediation in the legal system.
Training and selection of the mediators is not regulated by the Directive. Member states have to ensure the quality of mediators by encouraging training and the adoption of codes of conduct, and by providing quality control on mediation procedures. However, only 5 Member States include mediation in the legal education curriculum, and in most countries, a 40 to 50 hours-course in generally sufficient for accreditation. The aspect of training and job incentives is going to be crucial if mediation has to become mainstream, as the European institutions hope. Virtually all European countries leave the fees to be paid to mediators to the market, since they provide no court-sponsored or financed mediaton programmes. This may be a problem where these fees are instead controlled or capped, such as in Italy. By not committing the financial resources that are needed to reneder this service commercially viable, States may derail the ADR market. In the first years after the Directive, a large number of mediators were accredited, and therefore most mediators still mediate only a handful of cases per year. As a result, where mandatory mediation is established together with price control, civil and commercial mediators work virtually pro bono.
Mediation legislation has now been implemented in all Member States, but for some years the inflow of mediation proceedings has been limited to say the least, as it was in the past, with the notable exception of the few countries where mandatory mediation was introduced15. Some Member States have started a discussion to modify legislation, and have set up opt-out systems, where the parties must see a mediator in person, before deciding explicitly that they do not intend to take advantage of the process: if the party and/or their lawyer do not comply with this obligation, the judge may later award some of the legal costs to the counterparty, no matter what the decision on the dispute is.
Resorting to mediation implies a change in the legal culture, which can only be achieved gradually. The path towards a more balanced use of adjudication to resolve indiscriminately all types of conficts, will probably take longer than anyone expected.