take independent legal advice to avoid a challenge to your will later on

A Mediator ’s View of a Will Dispute

Many people hold a view of a legal dispute that includes a court room drama worthy of a John Grisham novel, but the reality is very different, and this applies as much in the context of a will dispute as to any other legal claim (criminal matters aside). Mediation now plays a big part in resolving will disputes – it’s a process of dispute resolution that you may not have come across before, but has several advantages for those involved. We talked to Phil Hesketh, an independent mediator, to give an ‘inside view’ of a will dispute – from the mediator’s perspective.

How did you become a mediator?

I qualified as a solicitor and worked as a personal injury solicitor, acting for injured workers. I felt I was providing a valuable service. However, I trained as a mediator in 2006 and realised I had found my true vocation. I discovered that I found helping people resolve their disputes as an independent party (rather than as a personal injury lawyer where I represented one side of a dispute) much more rewarding!

What do you consider to be the value of mediation?

Mediation offers several advantages if you’re involved in a will dispute. It’s much quicker than waiting for a trial. The mediation takes place on one day, and the parties retain control of the process. Another advantage over a trial is the parties cannot have a bad decision imposed upon them – if a solution is reached, it is because the parties all agree to it. There are huge cost savings for everyone involved if a will dispute is resolved through mediation. Finally, mediation gives the opportunity to work flexibly and draw up an agreement that resolves the issues in a more creative way than a court judgement can.

What is your role in the mediation?

It’s important to point out that I am independent – I work for both sides. I’ll communicate offers and discuss responses, with the aim of helping the people involved move towards a settlement acceptable to all. I can only pass on information from one person if they have given me permission to do so. As a mediator, I am there to tease out the issues, really get to the heart of what the people involved are seeking to achieve, and then help them to reach a solution. I’ll spend time finding out what each party is looking for. On first discussion, this can be quite general. Parties will say they “want an end” to the dispute, or “a fair resolution” so I need to understand what that means to them. Once this is clear, I can help the parties work towards agreement. I do this by moving between the private rooms where the different parties are based for the day, talking to each side.

How do you manage a situation when one side makes an offer that you know will upset the other side?

It’s not my job to judge what is a good or bad offer. On the other hand, if I know that an offer being proposed is likely to harm the negotiation process, I can invite them to reflect on whether, ultimately, making that offer will help them achieve the solution they are looking for. I help them explore other options but ultimately the parties decide what to do.

Are there any ‘down sides’?

Sometimes I finish a mediation with the parties having agreed a solution to their legal dispute but they have done this without actually speaking to each other during the process and leave it feeling as bitter and acrimonious towards each other as they did when they started. I feel this type of mediation, although resolving the legal dispute, misses a great opportunity for the parties to start some repairs to their relationship. I don’t mean that they will become best friends but just that they can deal with each other in the future in a more constructive way, without the need to correspond through lawyers. Not everybody wants to even consider this as an outcome but the potential is there and I am always disappointed when the parties decide not to engage with each other.

And the positives?

Well, aside from the advantages I’ve already mentioned, mediation offers the people involved an opportunity to be listened to, to have their complaints acknowledged, and to explain how the situation has impacted on them – even if it is just by me as the mediator. It’s a much ‘safer’ environment than a court room. Ideally, mediation results in the parties walking away having decided how to resolve the dispute and feeling in control of the outcome. Even if the mediation doesn’t result in a settlement, then the process should have helped the people involved be clear about the issues, and have a full understanding of why they decided not to settle.

Phil Hesketh is an independent mediator and consultant personal injury lawyer based in the northwest of England. You can read more about his services on his website.