A Short History of Mediation

March 29th, 2009 - Erin Johnston

Did you ever wonder what people used to do before there were written laws and courts and judges?  Was it really like what we saw in the movies?  Let’s see – there was a sword fight, and the man who won the fight was judged to be the winner of the argument.  We’re going to have to narrow that movie down a little…

From what historians tell us, arguments were frequently “settled” by the sword.  However, in more peaceful civilizations, they were more often settled by the wise men or elders of each village, or the leaders of the local church.  In ancient times, the history of mediation was the history of diplomacy.

The Eastern Civilizations were known for peaceful persuasion rather than coercive conflict.  Confucians and Buddhists have a long history of respecting the natural harmony of life.  To this day, if a person cannot resolve local conflicts peacefully, that person might lose the respect of others.

Several other ancient cultures had similar traditions.  Villages had at least one leader who was skilled at helping people solve problems.  People who followed the Roman example even created professional job descriptions – intercessors, conciliators, etc. – for those who ran back and forth between the bickering parties and traded offers of goods and services for the promise of peace.

Eventually, as populations increased, the king or the wise men ceased to be able to hear each dispute individually.  With the Code of Hammurabi and the signing of the Magna Carta, laws began to be written down, and there were formal positions created for those delegated to use those laws to resolve disputes.

Mediation really came into play with the advent of international treaties.  Since there was no existing “world law”, groups like the League of Nations or the United Nations incorporated provisions for mediation into their rules, or what we now call international law.

In the United States, we have the example of the Quakers to thank for our modern ideas of how mediation should work.  Its earliest public applications came with the Industrial Revolution, forming the basis of modern labor law.  From 1913 to 1947, the United States government formed the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service which, among other things, adapted labor conflict resolution techniques to other areas of civil law.

Mediation is now used in most areas of legal conflict, with excellent results.  Early roundtables agreed that, due to variations in traditions, mediation programs are best developed locally - which is why each local jurisdiction may do things just a little differently from its neighbors.  The theory reinforces our basic belief that, if given the chance, the people involved in a dispute are the best ones to decide how to resolve it.

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