Generally, mediation proceeds as follows:
1. Initial Joint Meeting: Both parties attend an initial joint session during which questions about mediation are answered and the mediator is provided with an overview of the situation bringing the parties to mediation. In simple disputes, the parties can often resolve their case during the first meeting, though that is unlikely in more complex cases. An overall plan for resolving issues is formulated by the parties and the mediator.
2. Individual Meetings: Usually, the mediator meets with each party privately at the beginning of the second session. This provides each party with an opportunity to advise the mediator of any special issues or concerns that the party feels more comfortable discussing without other parties present. The content of these "caucus" sessions is generally kept confidential, unless the parties and the mediator agree otherwise.
3. Identifying Issues & Exploring Solutions: The mediator assists the parties in identifying issues and areas of agreement. The mediator then assists the parties in developing solutions for areas in which there is not initial agreement. Typically, issues in need of resolution are grouped and organized so that a limited number of issues are the focus of each meeting. For example, in a divorce, the second session may focus on parenting issues; the third on property and debt distribution; and the fourth on cash flow issues such as child and spousal support.
4. Writing an Agreement: As a tentative agreement is reached on each set of issues, the mediator prepares a draft summarizing the tentative agreements. These tentative agreements can be reviewed and revised in subsequent mediation sessions. These partial, tentative agreements are the building blocks for a final, formal signed agreement. Unless the parties agree otherwise, there is not a binding agreement on any issue until there is agreement on all issues the parties are needing to resolve. Once there is final agreement on all issues, the agreement can be, if appropriate, submitted to the court for ratification.