Faith in Action – Episode 6

Stephen Ruttle – Faith in Conflict


Sargeant: Hello, I’m Richard Sargeant, and this is Faith in Action, a podcast about how faith affects the way we live and work today.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ said Jesus, but have the faithful got anything distinctive to add to the laudable efforts of all the secular diplomats and negotiators that are trying to achieve settlements between people in conflict with one another?

With me to discuss this is Stephen Ruttle QC, a barrister at Brick Court Chambers in London, one of the top ten commercial mediators in the world, according to Who’s Who Legal. Stephen, welcome.


Ruttle: Thank you very much, great pleasure.


Sargeant: So, why mediation, Stephen? I thought barristers tended to argue your case and generally be adversarial, rather than seeking compromise?

Ruttle: You’re absolutely right. As a barrister, I was a litigator, and the litigator’s job is to win battles. We have one of the best legal systems in the world, but it’s adversarial, which means that the judge, or tribunal, ultimately, is seeking to decide on who’s right and who’s wrong, and the barrister’s job in the work I did, which is in civil – it’s not always civil, but it’s called civil as opposed to criminal – is to act as the mouthpiece, act as the representative of the client, and my job in essence is to win the battle that is being staged before the judge. And so, as the barrister, my role is really that of a legal mercenary.

Mediation, on the other hand, a mediator’s job is not to win a battle. A mediator’s job is to help the two litigants, who would otherwise be asking the judge to decide on rightness and wrongness, to work with those two litigants and to help them work out their own solution to their problem. And I heard it said a bit like this, that the legal system, the litigation system, disempowers the individuals who are stuck within it because, effectively, the problem that they’ve hit, the dispute they’ve hit which they haven’t been able to resolve themselves, is bigger than they are, and therefore, they need help from the experts, the lawyers, and it goes to the judge to ask the judge to tell them what the answer is, who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s the winner, who’s the loser. Mediation, on the other hand, inverts that approach, so rather than the problem being bigger than the parties, the mediator’s approach is to say, you guys are bigger than the problem, and the relationship that normally they would have had in a commercial or sometimes family context, is bigger than the difficulty, but they need some help to have the conversation, often a difficult conversation, that enables them to find their solution.


Sargeant: And so, how does that actually work? How does mediation work? I imagine that differences between parties are often really entrenched. How do you deal with that?


Ruttle: Mediation really began in the UK in the mid-1990s. It was an import from America, where they had developed it because of the increasing litigization, really, of their culture, and we inherited it in the mid-’90s. It arrived, to some extent, to a chorus of skepticism from my profession, the bar. We regarded it a bit like quiche. Real litigators don’t mediate, and there was all the crack about, it was meditation or medication, sat in the corner and quivered, and hardened litigators went over all soft and cozy when a mediator threw magic dust in the air.

So, there was lots of misunderstanding about it, but it began to take root because, in essence, that goes back to a point I made before, I think really for two main reasons. The first is negative, in the sense that litigation is a form of warfare, and very few individuals, very few corporates, in particular, want to spend their time fighting. Someone defines success in battle by reference to the party who has the fewest casualties, and that is without a doubt true for the litigation process. So, there is a strong driver against getting involved in the litigation process. The other point, perhaps on a more positive note, is that a judge has relatively little scope in fashioning an outcome to the dispute that the parties may put before him or her. The judge can make an order of damages, and occasionally make an order that people do or do not do certain things: injunctions. Mediators, on the other hand, work with the parties to help them fashion their own solution. So, he/she works with the parties to help them decide, if they wish to and if they’re able to – they don’t always, but they normally do – work out a solution that works for them, and these solutions can be incredibly flexible. They can involve making new agreements with each other, they can involve things like apologies, they can involve sometimes donations to charities of their joint choice, where it’s too difficult for one or other to be seen to be playing money, and so on. So, you have this process which has become a phenomenon in London. Many people are now describing it not as ADR, alternative dispute resolution, but PDR, primary dispute resolution.


Sargeant: And is it commonly successful, or is it the first step before an adversarial process?


Ruttle: It varies. The overall success rate depends, obviously, from case to case. Some are more complicated than others, but the anecdotal feedback I’ve had is that maybe three out of four or four out of five mediations succeed. By succeed, I mean the reaching of a settlement, whereby the litigants sign an agreement which is legally binding, which brings to an end the legal dispute. This means that the parties who were suing each other agree that, instead of that litigation, there will be a resolution, usually by means of a payment of a sum of money from one of them to the other.


Sargeant: Stephen, you’re a Christian. What relevance does faith have in mediation?


Ruttle: As a barrister, I had increasingly felt awkward. In commercial litigation, my sense was that, at the end of the case, win or lose, I’d had a client who’d gone through a mangle. One thing that would usually happen once you fought a case and gone through the pain of litigation, you probably didn’t want to spend very much time, let alone further business, with your counterparty. So, I was beginning to ask questions because my faith led me to believe, really, that there needed to be a greater emphasis on relationships. And Jesus’s injunction requirement that we engage relationally – that we love our enemies, that we seek to restore relationships first – I was increasingly feeling ought to have an application somehow in this field of dispute resolution. So, that’s really how I approached it.

When I went on the mediation course, I was, in fact, blown away. I do describe it as a Damascus Road experience. What I would have described as a barrister before that as work became something much more profound, and when there is the sense that who you are as a person and as a believer, follower of Jesus, when that fits with your work such that you feel that work has become calling, that is a huge privilege.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride. I’ve worked full time as a commercial mediator for the last 14 years, 13, 14 years. It  has been extraordinary, both in the work I do as a commercial mediator. Very small cases to very large ones, that’s the job, but the overflow of it means that I’m now increasingly working in the communities. I help run a community mediation charity whereby we are working in housing estates, prisons, schools, helping individuals talk to each other. One can potentially use churches and other faith group, places of worship, as places for neighborhood reconciliation. You then begin to see the application of it in broader Christian church, and of course, overlying all of this are the international arenas where peacemakers are probably needed, perhaps as never before.


Sargeant: The story of the gospel is one of reconciliation, and I wonder whether you saw any parallels in the process of mediation?


Ruttle: Yes. This is a visual image that I sometimes use when talking about it. Let’s assume that you had two individuals, then conflict arises of some description. So, they argue about a particular issue, they see it from different perspectives, they get frustrated, and because they can’t persuade the other, that the other person is wrong and the first person is right, they start to blame each other for that. The conflict becomes personalized. You begin to lose touch with what was the original difficulty and blame each other, and that’s usually a fertile source for further complaint.

After blaming each other for a bit, they start to become offensive, angry, and then I invite them to turn their back on each other. How easy or difficult is it for those two individuals to turn around? And the answer is, it’s incredibly difficult for many reasons. Sometimes, it’s fear, sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s face. There’s a verse in the Old Testament in the Book of Job, an extraordinary book about why dreadful things happen to good people. In the course of Job’s agonized arguing with god, he uses this expression, would that there were someone to mediate between us? And then, this metaphor, someone to lay his hand upon us both. And in Christian theology and in the story of Jesus, the image of someone standing vertically with one arm stretched to the right and one arm stretched to the left is an image of crucifixion. And in some way, this being in the middle, standing as a peacemaker between warring parties, sometimes desperately stretched as one seeks to reach out to the polarized people, is an image which has I think some reflection of Jesus.


Sargeant: Stephen, thank you. And perhaps on a lighter note, do you ever have disagreements at work?


Ruttle: Never, never. Never, never, never.


Sargeant: Do you, you at least disagree well?


Ruttle: Well, interestingly, many mediators would say they’re conflict-averse. They would actually say that they will tend, and I do, I tend to run away from conflict personally.


Sargeant: And if somebody listening is interested in mediation and might want to get involved, are there any avenues?


Ruttle: There is a thriving community Mediation World. You don’t have to be a lawyer. In fact, being a lawyer probably makes you less likely to be a good mediator. So, the community Mediation World attracts individuals from all walks of life, all beliefs or no belief, who are trained, usually as volunteer community mediators, and are then used usually in twos to work with neighbors, sometimes working prisons, restorative justice, some work in schools trying to train kids to act as mediators. So, there’s huge scope, enormous scope in the next five to ten years. I would love to see increasingly growth of what I call peace centers in communities, places to which local disputes could be referred, and which would then be referred to panels of trained mediators who will be able to help.


Sargeant: Stephen, thank you so much for your time.


Ruttle: Not at all, great pleasure. And if anyone wants to make contact, Richard will have the details.