Neighbour and peer mediation help to preserve social order

The title of this talk, about which you have invited me to speak, is an optimistic one! I believe the statement to be true, but we do not yet have strong evidence. This is, not least, because so far mediation has only been put into practice on a small scale, but of course we hope that it will have an influence beyond its numbers, as more and more people have experienced it, or know someone who has. I believe that the advocates of a movement called ‘transcendental meditation’ claim that if one per cent of the population of a town practise it, the ethos of that town will be transformed. In English, many people confuse the words ‘meditation’ and ‘mediation’. We hope that mediation will have the power to transform communities in a similar way! Our experience suggests that we can take this as a working hypothesis until we have firm evidence.

 First I will describe our experience of neighbour mediation in Lambeth, in south London¨ how it was established and how it works, with some examples; then you can consider whether this approach is relevant in Polish circumstances. I will say a few words about mediation in schools; then I will suggest some reasons why the hypothesis is a reasonable one, and outline the ideals on which this practice is based, ending with a vision for the future.

Experience in Lambeth

Lambeth is an inner-city borough in south London with a population of about 250 000. Long ago it was made up of villages, such as Kennington (with a famous cricket ground, and a piece of common land where public executions were once carried out), Vauxhall (which once had beautiful gardens, and gave its name to the Russian word for a railway station, вокзал), Clapham (which is famous because a judge once described the ‘man in the street’, the ‘ordinary’ person, as ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’), and Streatham (which is not famous for the fact that I live there!) Lambeth is ethnically very mixed; over one third of the population are from black and ethnic minority communities. In families in Lambeth over 150 languages are spoken, and in the schools 27 percent of pupils are not fluent in English. It is the second-most disadvantaged borough in England. Forty-two per cent of dependent children live in single-parent families, and 51 per cent of children receive free school meals (Thurlow and Bitel 2002). Over 200 children are on the Child Protection Register1. Unemployment is nearly 10 per cent. It has many high blocks of flats, and many houses converted into flats, usually with poor sound insulation.

 Another of the former villages is Brixton, with shops, a market, many ethnic minor­ities, but also some middle-class people who have discovered that property prices are not so high as elsewhere. With this mixture of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ the crime rate is high. Twenty-five years ago the people whom police officers stopped and searched in the streets were disproportionately from black and ethnic minority groups, which caused resentment against the police.2 In April 1981, and again in September 1985, major riots took place. There were also riots elsewhere, for example in Liverpool. At this period, of course, people in Poland were having their own difficulties.

 A senior judge, Lord Scarman, was appointed to produce a report. He recommended reforms in the police and in the community generally, especially for those who are disadvantaged because of their race. He was impressed by ‘the enthusiasm … among tenants’ groups and ethnic minority leaders’, and considered that ‘Inner city areas are not human deserts: they possess a wealth of voluntary effort and goodwill. It would be wise to put this human capital to good use’ (Scarman 1982: 159-160). Later the Safe Neighbourhood Unit of Nacro, an NGO concerned with crime prevention and the support of ex-offenders, was commissioned by Lambeth borough council to report on a troubled housing estate called Lansdowne Green, and found among other things that:

Many tenants complained about the problem of neighbour disputes. The Tenants Association stressed that Housing Officers fail to tackle the problem of neighbour disputes or take responsibility to resolve them.

 It recommended that

The Council should first review and strengthen its procedures for dealing with neighbour disputes and also consider setting up a mediation scheme (as in Reading, Southwark, Sandwell and Islington) in order to reduce the level of conflict in such situations and to bring about an effective resolution without recourse to the police or legal remedies.(Nacro 1987)

Among the reforms after the riots were improvements in police/community liaison, and volunteers were appointed as lay visitors to police stations, to see that prisoners were well treated. One person involved in these reforms was Greta Brooks, a former school teacher and the wife of a retired doctor. After working with the police for some time, she concluded that it would help both the community and the police if people who had disputes with their neighbours had the choice of resolving them through mediation, rather than by going to the police. She therefore decided, in 1988 (at the age of 71), to establish a mediation service in Lambeth.

 She contacted a wide variety of people to assess the need for a mediation service: the police, housing officers, community associations, NGOs, church groups. She went to see the national organization Mediation UK, which told her among other things that I was a member and lived in the area – so I was one of the people she contacted. She organized public meetings in different parts of the borough. As a result of this she found a group of people who were willing to form a steering committee.

The committee made a list of things that needed to be done. Two people drew up a constitution, and applied for registration as a charity.3 Another group planned the recruitment and training of volunteer mediators. Others worked out the details of how the service would operate, and planned publicity for it. It was decided that mediators would be as representative as possible of the local community (or communities), and that anyone could apply to be trained as a mediator, with no previous paper qualifi­cations. Training is practical, not based on reading academic textbooks and writing essays. It includes such practical skills as ‘active listening’, awareness of prejudice, summarizing statements in neutral language, and – importantly – mediators would work in pairs and learn to give and receive constructive feedback about each other’s performance. It was expected that one or two people would drop out of the training course if they felt that they were not suitable; in addition there would be an assessment at the end of the course by means of a role play and an interview, and references would be requested.

 When someone contacted the service, or was referred by (for example) a housing officer, the police, or a local councillor, the request would come to the co-ordinator. At first this was Greta Brooks herself, working on a voluntary basis from her own house; later we employed a paid co-ordinator and rented an office. Mediators would work in pairs. They would visit the first party and listen to their account of what had happened; then, if the first party asked them to visit the other party, they would ask them also if they could visit them and listen to their point of view. Perhaps we should be willing to try more ‘shuttle’ or ‘pendulum’ diplomacy, going backwards and forwards between the two; this produces less satisfaction, but may be better than nothing. On the other hand, it may provide an easy way out for some people who would otherwise have chosen the benefits of face-to-face mediation. In our present model, both parties are asked if they agree to meet, on neutral premises such as a community centre, with mediators. If they agree, the co-ordinator arranges the meeting. In addition to the two mediators a third trained volunteer is present, who acts as ‘receptionist’: he or she talks to the first party when they arrive, so that when the second party arrives they do not find the others chatting to the mediators, which might give the impression that the mediators were not neutral. If the mediators want to speak to each party alone, the receptionist chats to the other; if everyone feels the need for a pause, he or she makes tea or coffee. The receptionist also deals with any unexpected occurrence, for example looking after a small child whom one of the parties has brought. Otherwise the receptionist takes no part in the mediation; but afterwards, when the mediators evaluate the session and each other’s performance, the receptionist also contributes as an independent observer. .

 Currently a system of accreditation is being introduced, both for mediation services and for individual mediators. This is desirable in principle, but there are fears that the process may be more bureaucratic than necessary. Appendix 1 gives some idea of the sorts of disputes handled. In addition there have been some disputes between groups of people, and between shopkeepers.

 The first funding for Lambeth Mediation Service came from charitable trusts; costs were low because all the work was done by volunteers. When it became necessary to employ a co-ordinator, funds were obtained from the local authority, Lambeth borough council. Otherwise we have to obtain money from charitable trusts, or from special government initiatives which provide funds for specific purposes. These funds are usually limited to two or three years. Keeping ourselves informed about these, and applying for them, is time-consuming. In the United Kingdom, NGOs have to spend a lot of time designing new projects which will attract the interest of government departments or charitable foundations. It is difficult to obtain the ‘core funding’, the basic cost of keeping the service running. The government says that it wants to encourage voluntary activity in the community, but arrangements like these do not make it easy for us.

 We are now beginning to extend the service to other kinds of disputes, such as those in the workplace or in residential homes. Agreements are written in everyday language, using the parties’ own words as far as possible. A balance is struck between being specific, for example agreeing a date by which a fence will be repaired, and making an agreement based on goodwill and good intentions. Often what is important is not so much the agreement itself, as the fact that the parties have spoken to each other and recognized that the other respects their needs. Some examples of agreements are given in Appendix 2:

 Other mediation services offer a range of different services; Appendix 3 shows the range covered by a few of the mediation centres in England. Many are working with children, in or out of schools. This work is also spreading through the government’s initiative to include ‘citizenship’ in the school curriculum, but it is not centrally co-ordinated and there appears to be no information about the number of schools which are already using it. A young mediators’ network has been started and is growing, with more than 250 members aged from 13 to 21 and 200 schools and other organizational members. It is encouraging to see that there is also growing interest in school mediation in Poland.

 Mediation in Lambeth schools

I will say a few words about peer mediation in Lambeth, not because it is a distinctive programme, but because it is the one with which I have worked. We wrote to all the primary (age 5-11) and secondary (age 11-18) schools in the borough, asking if they felt that peer mediation would be helpful in their school. A number of them said Yes, which enabled us to obtain a three-year grant from the National Lottery Community Fund, to develop this service. We agreed to work in the first five schools that replied (three primary and two secondary comprehensive, of which one was co-educational and one for girls only); another primary school was added later. We appointed a mediation trainer, and she started to train a group of children in each school.

 The aim was not only to teach children how to mediate, but to

  • enhance children’s and young people’s learning to prepare them for the world outside, where conflict is bound to take place

  • enable children and young people to handle conflict in such a way that all parties feel they have been treated fairly

  • empower children and young people to achieve an amicable agreement without resorting to violence as a means of resolving conflict

  • give children and young people life and communication skills, with particular reference to Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) and Citizenship as essential parts of the school curriculum. (Thurlow and Bitel 2002)

 At first, training was provided in twelve weekly one-hour sessions, but recently we have experimented with delivering the same number of hours in half-day or whole-day sessions, which has some advantages. The principles and practice of mediation are very simple, and similar to those used by adults:

  • introduction, mediator’s impartial role, ground rules: no interrupting, no put-downs [humiliations], no swearing or name-calling [insults], try to be honest
  • each party tells their story uninterrupted and expresses their feelings

  • the parties question each other and discuss the issues

  • the parties put forward suggestions for workable solutions

  • the parties agree on one or more solutions. A written agreement is [usually] drawn up and signed by the parties and the mediators   (Lawrence 2000)

We were able to find some money for research. Unfortunately our worker did not succeed in persuading children and staff to keep detailed records, so few figures are available. The results of the research, however, were generally favourable. (This group of quotations is from Thurlow and Bitel 2002). One head teacher said

The ethos amongst the kids is much more supportive when there’s a dispute … There’s a general lowering of temperature across the school – the kids are beginning to realise that they have responsibilities.

 It helped the self-esteem of the mediators; one said:

It makes me feel good – I’m proud of myself for achieving something

Mediated pupils appreciated the service:

I thought, how can someone my own age talk to me? But after, I realised that she understood me much better than a grown-up would – the words I was using, me and the other girl’s attitude.

If we hadn’t had it, we’d have kept on punching each other and we’d probably have been excluded.

 Even if figures had been collected (for example for the number of temporary or permanent exclusions of pupils, the number reported to the head teacher, and so on) they would not prove that mediation was successful, because most schools have more than one programme operating at the same time.

 Our next concern is to find a way of spreading mediation through all the approximately sixty schools in the borough. In theory we could train the staff in a few schools, then leave them to continue while we worked in more schools; but we cannot be sure that standards will be maintained, and the trained staff may move and not be replaced. But if we were to maintain a regular presence in all the schools, that would require a larger staff, which in turn would require extra funding. Funding is of course another major concern. The original grant from the Community Fund allowed us to offer the service free for three years, but it was not renewed, so that now we have to ask the schools to pay. Some are willing to do so, but others are unable to.

 The case for restorative approaches in schools has been made by the practitioner and trainer Belinda Hopkins (2004). It is based on such values as recognition of feelings, needs and rights, empowerment, trust and above all respect for other people even when their behaviour has been unacceptable. Hopkins explores such concepts as the need for participation to be voluntary, but she faces the need to decide what to do if voluntary participation is not possible. She suggests that when children understand the principles of co-operative problem-solving, they can collectively make such deci­sions. Mediation is not the whole of this method; it emphasises other necessary buil­ding blocks of a whole-school approach such as promoting communication, and tech­niques such as problem-solving circles. We must look beyond the conflict and tackle the unmet needs which gave rise to it. We must also not ignore the possible contri­bution of adults to escalating the problem if they do not handle it in a restorative way.

 We hope to extend the service to help with conflicts between parents and schools, parents and children, members of staff, and so on; this of course would be done by adult mediators.

 Why mediation should work

The first community mediation service in England, founded in 1984, says in its current annual report (2002-2003):

Our vision is for Newham to be part of a global community in which people are nurtured and empowered to value difference4 and to see conflict as an opportunity for change’  (Newham Conflict and Change 2003)

Disputes can have serious outcomes. One man in Lincoln had a long-running dispute, because he thought that his neighbour’s hedge was too high. One day he cut it down – and his neighbour shot him dead (Independent 16 June 2003). It is estimated that there are 100 000 hedge disputes in Britain every year. A couple in Swindon claim that the behaviour of their neighbour has reduced the value of their house by £60 000 (Times 21 November 2002). An elderly man, a former soldier, used a toy gun to try to scare off boys who were taunting him; he was charged with possessing an imitation firearm with intent to cause fear, but killed himself on the first day of his appearance in court (Independent, 16 May 2001). A Home Office study suggests that a substantial part of the rise in violent crime is due to assaults and fights between friends, work colleagues, and their clients, and schoolchildren. The number of such incidents, not including domestic violence, has risen from about 800 000 in 1981 to 1 182 000 in 1999, an increase of 48 per cent, while the number of attacks by strangers has increased by only about 5 per cent, from 850 000 to 892 000 (Stranger and acquaintance violence: practice messages from the British Crime Survey, reported in Independent, 23 July 2001) .

 These are extreme cases, but less serious ones can make life unpleasant for many individuals and families. Suppose that your neighbour constantly plays loud music, or their children run up and down in the flat above yours until late at night, or they repeatedly park their car in your parking space – what can you do? You can lie down like a doormat and try to get used to it. You can knock on their door and ask them to stop; perhaps they will, or perhaps they will give you a mouthful of abuse. Perhaps you will shout back at them, and make things worse. You can bang on the ceiling, or turn your own music up high, or shout at their children – that usually makes things worse, too. You can get your other neighbours to support you against the troublesome one – he or she will probably do the same, and the community will be divided into hostile groups. You can ask a lawyer to write them a letter; that will be expensive and is unlikely to improve personal communication between you and your neighbour. If you go to the police, you will probably never be on speaking terms with your neighbour again, especially if this ends in a prosecution and conviction.

 Our experience has shown that people can resolve their own disputes, with the help of a third party, and remain on speaking terms, even in the most unlikely cases. If people are willing to come into the same room, with the mediators to make sure that they are safe and guide the discussion so that it does not go round in circles, an agreement is reached in eight or nine cases out of ten. The more we do, the less the state or the justice system has to do. The difficulty is in persuading them to talk to each other. We hope that as the reputation of mediation spreads, more and more people will be willing to do so.

 One writer has suggested that the basis for a civil society is the belief that individuals are not motivated solely by self-interest, but by the need for affirming social relationships (Morrison 2001). Restorative justice can reintegrate those who are not linked to their communities, by creating mutual understanding. Social capital is built through institutions that foster productive social relationships. A dialogue between parents and teachers, for example, should be institutionalized. The ideal would be not to control people through rewards and punishments, but to form ‘communities bound by moral commitment, trust and a sense of purpose’ (ibid. p. 203). In this way we can allay fears and cultivate hope.

 A vision for the future

We are not going to create Utopia – in this life at least –and I hope that the people on this planet can avoid turning it into Hell, but we can decide whether we will try to walk towards one or the other. It may seem that I am going beyond the subject of this talk, but I don’t think so. If modern societies were more-or-less stable and just communities in which the problem was only to persuade deviants to conform with the wishes and interests of the majority, then mediation and restorative justice would be merely a tool for this purpose.

 As it is, however, many societies are unequal, many people live in poor conditions, people want more than they have and take it from others against their wishes (and wealthy individuals and corporations do this as well as poor ones). It follows, firstly, that mediation must be carried out with great care and adequate safeguards, to make sure that the stronger party does not dominate the weaker one. Secondly, it follows that mediation has an extra function. It does not only provide an opportunity for the two parties to resolve their conflict, but it enables them, and the mediators, and anyone else present, to gain a better understanding of the social pressures that may have contributed to the conflict. The challenge is then to act on these insights, to make the community, the country and eventually the world a better place. Mediation and restorative justice cannot achieve that on their own, but they can contribute towards it.

 This is not the place to undertake an analysis of the flaws in modern society, but I would like to say a few words about money. It was invented as a tool, to save the inconvenience of barter, but when its acquisition becomes an end in itself, goods are manufactured for no other purpose than to be sold at a profit Some people want to continue this because it is their livelihood; others to get rich. If acquiring a maximum amount of money becomes a goal, people are reluctant to pay taxes, and public services are cut. Nils Christie says that if he had the power and the urge ‘to construct a situation for the promotion of crime, then I would have shaped our societies to a form very close to what we find in a great number of modern states’ (2004: 51). We live in a ‘monoculture’, in which money and consumption are the goals of life; we are dominated not by a dictator, but by dependence on production and consumption, almost a totalitarian culture, so that lack of money becomes an indicator of failure which many people will go to extreme lengths to avoid. Meanwhile there is ‘diminished availability of the types of activities that represent a reward in themselves’ (ibid. p. 27).

 The mediation movement is affected by this tendency. Like other services, if it does not receive enough money, it cannot provide the best possible service. Secondly, at its best mediation is a community-based movement, in which people from many different backgrounds volunteer to act as mediators. But those who have to work long hours of overtime, or take a second job, in order to support themselves and their families, may not be able to volunteer unless they are compensated for the loss of earnings while they are doing voluntary work. In that case, again, adequate funding of mediation services is essential

 I hope that we can achieve a society in which people can earn enough to live on in a shorter working week, so that they will have more time for voluntary activities, including mediation and many others. These would be ‘activities that represent a reward in themselves’, and would mean that social workers and police also would not have to work such long hours. We should not need so many of them; the more people do for themselves, the fewer taxes they will have to pay to the state for services. In England, people are commonly (but not always) allowed time off work, to serve as unpaid lay magistrates, or as jurors; it is not common to be given the same freedom for other voluntary work, such as mediating

 The aim would not be a society without conflicts but one in which conflicts are handled restoratively. It would for example

  • – include mediation in the basic school syllabus
  • – enable people (and organizations, groups, official agencies and others) to handle conflicts themselves, with the help of mediators if necessary
  • – enable people to handle conflicts without violence
  • – enable people to learn from them
  • – encourage them to put into practice what they have learnt – locally and ultimately structurally

An example of how this can be done comes from the Peacemaker Committees in Zwelethemba, Western Cape, and other townships in South Africa. They handle a wide range of criminal and civil cases, and those where the criminal law is not involved such as infidelity and noise disturbance5. One distinctive feature is that cases are not necessarily referred from courts but people can come to the project directly. Another is that there is a peace-building project alongside the peacemaking. This studies the conflicts to identify the underlying social problems, such as extreme poverty and the chronic lack of employment opportunities and basic amenities, and within its limited resources takes remedial action such as building a children’s playground and support­ing small businesses (Roche 2003: 264-6). It may not be able to effect funda­mental structural changes, but could help to make people aware of the need for them.

 Ultimately there could be mediation centres throughout a country. As far as possible the work would be done by trained volunteers, who would be reimbursed for expenses and loss of earnings if necessary. In complex cases, a professional and a volunteer mediator could work as co-mediators. There would need to be a system (as unbureaucratic as possible) for accreditation and continuing training. They would be supported by local and national government, but ideally would obtain funding from more than one source in order to retain their independence. There could also be paid work (with paid mediators) for commercial and governmental agencies.

 Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought of western civilization. He replied that he thought it would be a good idea! If this vision spreads to Lambeth, Wrocław and other local communities, so that local mediation services, and especially peer mediation in schools, become as normal and universal as law courts, perhaps it will help to make Gandhi’s good idea a normal part of life in our societies.

= = = = = = = =


Christie, Nils (2004) A suitable amount of crime. London: Routledge.

Hopkins, Belinda (2004) Just schools: a whole school approach to restorative justice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Lawrence, Elizabeth (2000) ‘Conflict resolution and peer mediation in primary schools.’ In: Marian Liebmann, ed. Mediation in context. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Morrison, Brenda (2001) ‘The school system: developing its capacity in the regulation of a civil society.’ In: H Strang and J Braithwaite, eds. Restorative justice and civil society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nacro: Safe Neighbourhoods Unit (1987) Lansdowne Green report: crime, policing and safety on Lansdowne Green Estate, Lambeth. Nacro, 169 Clapham Road, London SW9 0 PU.

Newham Conflict and Change (2003) Annual report 2002-2003.

Roche, Declan (2003) Accountability in restorative justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scarman, Lord (1982) The Scarman resport: the Brixton disorders 10-12 April 1981. London: HMSO 1981; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1982.

Thurlow, Jane, and Mark Bitel (2002) The evaluation of the Lambeth Schools Peer Mediation Programme. Lambeth Mediation Service, 1 Barrhill Road, London SW2 4RJ.

Appendix 1:

 Examples of disputes:


  • Music (especially late at night)
  • Shouting
  • Hammering, power tools
  • Washing machine
  • Slamming doors


  • How they behave
  • Running about indoors, especially late at night
  • Ball games out of doors
  • How neighbours speak to them


  • Bad language
  • The offensive way in which a complaint is made
  • The offensive way in which neighbour reacts when complaint is made
  • Threats
  • Property
  • Boundaries of gardens
  • Access to garden
  • Spaces for car parking
  • Damage caused by fallen tree
  • Dripping water, overflowing bath or washing machine
  • Other
    • Trouble caused by animals
    • Cooking smells

Appendix 2:

 Examples of agreements

Mrs B will try to make sure that from 7 p.m. her son K will play quiet games until he goes to bed.

Mr & Mrs C accept that K will play during the day, and may dance or make a reasonable amount of noise.

If there are any problems, Mrs B, or Mr and Mrs C, will contact Lambeth Mediation Service. [This is unusual: generally the parties agree on how they will communicate with each other directly]

Both Mrs D and Mrs E will clean the hall on alternate weekends

 If the children in either family cause a problem, both parties will speak to the parents about it, not the children.

Mr D will remember how thin the walls are, when he comes home after midnight

F will ring the bell twice to tell G when he is on night shift.

G will ask her children to be quiet at those times.

If the children make a noise while G is out, F will let her know when she comes back, or write a note.

And the most basic agreement:

 H and J will treat each other with respect.  [This is not usually put in writing, but is implied by the fact that the parties have been willing to meet each other.]


Appendix 3: Selected mediation services

 Basildon Mediation, Essex

  • Peer mediation
  • Homeless young people and their families
  • Victim/offender mediation

 Mediation Oxfordshire

  • Mediators: 6 paid, 11 volunteers
  • Neighbours
  • Parents & schools
  • Workplace colleagues
  • Facilitating difficult meetings
  • Branches and generations of families
  • Tenants & landlords

 Mediation Dorset

  • Restorative justice conferencing’ in schools,
  • Workplace: between staff, employers & staff, with clients/customers.
  • Preventing homelessness
  • Children with special educational needs
  • Victim/offender, restorative justice
  • Young mediators project: peer mediation, skills training
  • Anti-social behaviour

Newham Conflict and Change, east London

  • Community mediation, neighbour disputes
  • Domestic mediation: working with families where communication has broken down
  • Community development: learning to manage conflict, share ideas and resources, working with homeless families and refugees
  • Schools: whole-school approach, training for student mediators, communication training for teachers and supervisors
  • Training for trainers
  • Muslim mediation service

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1 Every local authority in England and Wales keeps a Register, or list, of the names of children who need a child protection plan to help keep them safe from harm.

2 This still happens, but not to such a marked degree as before.

3 . This means that the not-for-profit association does not have to pay tax, but it has to provide information about its financial management to the Charity Commissioners.

4 i.e. to value the differences between people and cultures, and treat people equally

5 What is and is not defined as criminal varies, of course, in different jurisdictions.