By Paul Sandford, the ASM Plus director
A few months ago, I facilitated this particular case on line. It very clearly demonstrates how effective mediation can be in a domestic setting. Additionally, it resonates very strongly in the context of the current health crisis in which families and house mates who share accommodation have found themselves living together for protracted periods in cramped or difficult circumstances.
As he got older, Thomas whom some of his friends have described as “a surly, confirmed bachelor who likes having his own way” and had lived on his own for many years, developed respiratory problems which have left him very significantly disabled. By the time he met James approximately three and a half years ago he was more or less completely house bound. He was able to drive but was barely able to manage the 10-metre walk from his home to his car without the support of two walking sticks and another person. The process of getting up in the morning, taking the shower which, he invariably needed because of his proneness to night sweats and then dressing would take him two hours. Because he was finding food preparation to be very difficult, Thomas was more or less entirely reliant on unhealthy fast food and takeaways and had put on a considerable amount of weight which further impaired his mobility. He also had a small dog, Buster, whom he was unable to exercise and who had started to mess inside the house.
At the time that he met Thomas, James, who was reputed to be rather unreliable and very bad at managing money was homeless and sleeping rough. Initially, Thomas occasionally invited James to stay over for a night or two with his dog, Lassie. In return, James would help out by doing some cooking, cleaning and shopping. His overnight stays became more frequent and subsequently it was agreed that he would move in on a permanent basis and become Thomas’ carer.
It was also envisaged that James would apply for Carers Allowance and that he would undertake tasks such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, dog walking and accompanying Thomas to his many hospital appointments, equivalent to the statutorily required period of 35 hours a week. No rent would be charged but James would make a 50 per cent contribution towards quarterly gas and electricity bills, maintain his own mobile telephone, make a contribution towards Thomas’ monthly Internet standing order and maintain separate food shopping and catering arrangements. Additionally, Thomas very specifically agreed that beyond this he would not make any excessive demands and indicated that he was very happy for his new friend to resume his previous occupation as a self-employed painter and decorator.
Initially the arrangement worked very well. However, after a few weeks, James found that he was doing more and more for Thomas. On the rare occasions that he found work, James would be frequently interrupted by Thomas telephoning him and insisting that he return home immediately, often for no good reason. The agreed 35 hours of care input per week doubled with Thomas expecting James to wait on him, hand and foot. James found it very difficult to build up his business and realised that rather than gaining new customers he was losing existing ones. Despite being taken out for walks on a regular basis, Buster continued to soil the house leaving James with the unenviable task of cleaning up.
On the other hand, despite receiving his Carers Allowance on a regular basis and getting some income from his work, James was constantly short of money. He made few of his agreed financial contributions and was forever “borrowing” Thomas’ mobile phone to make lengthy peak rate personal calls. James’ requests for short term loans that were never repaid became ever more frequent. Thomas often ran out of food because the impecunious James had been raiding his larder and found that he was being expected to make frequent, car trips to a Builders’ merchant without any suggestion of a contribution towards petrol costs. James would often refer to Thomas as being a “miserly so and so” and would accuse him of being “financially extortionate” and “a bully boy”. Lassie was unsettled and was aggressive towards both Thomas and Buster.
Prior to their facilitated meeting Thomas and James were muddling along in a state of almost total disharmony and many harsh things had been said. Their arrangement survived only because each of them very grudgingly conceded that to some extent they needed each other and because whatever else, James maintained his caring obligation. Thomas, who wanted to avoid being moved into a care facility at all costs, knew full well that he was never likely to find an alternative carer who would be prepared to put up with him. James, who had no other accommodation options was desperate to avoid being thrown out and having to sleep rough again.
A neighbour who was heartily sick of being forced to listen to the ongoing arguments between Thomas and James suggested mediation which led to my involvement and my recommendation of a 90-minute facilitated meeting.
It is fair to say that the opening 20 minutes in which both parties were invited to make a short opening statement did not go well. Thomas and James both behaved very aggressively and made a number of inflammatory remarks in which they wholeheartedly blamed each other. Neither party came across as remotely conciliatory and 30 minutes into the meeting I wondered if the process would last another 10 minutes, let alone 60. I invited Thomas and James to consider what might happen if they did not reach an agreement and subsequently progress was made.
Thomas did rather begrudgingly acknowledge that whatever else, James was a good and diligent carer and that Buster “could be a bit of a nuisance”. Initially, James brushed these potentially significant concessions aside. However, with the benefit of a short break both parties were able to reflect and confirmed that they would like to continue with the discussion. Albeit without conceding that he was in any way “to blame”, James indicated that he was very concerned about being asked to leave Thomas’ house and suggested they could both as he put it “renegotiate” their arrangement.
In the brief but very positive discussion that ensued, although there were more harsh words, Thomas agreed that he would stop making continued and repeated demands on Jame’s time and working arrangements. In return, James agreed to start trying to manage his money better and a payment schedule for the not inconsiderable sums of money that he conceded were owed to Thomas was devised. Thomas reluctantly agreed that Buster should sleep in an outdoor kennel and James said he would control Lassie. Additionally, they both agreed to review their agreement from time to time and that rather than keeping things to themselves they would mention concerns when they arose and as Thomas put it, “not let things get out of hand”.
It would be wrong to suggest that Thomas and James have “lived happily ever after”. However, because they acknowledged to one another that they both had a vested interest in maintaining arrangements and that there should be an element of “give and take” they were able to continue living together in some degree of harmony. At the end of the session I was reminded that even in seemingly hopeless cases there is often some room for manoeuvre. James kept his home and has repaid quite a lot of the money he owed whilst Thomas has been able to maintain an acceptable quality of life. The modest charge for the facilitated meeting has been “repaid” several times over.
(1) Obviously, the parties’ names and some of the details of their case have been changed to protect their identities
Principal Director of ASM PLUS, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.