What is the status of mediation in this jurisdiction?

Mediation is used extensively, with over 50 South African statutes prescribing the use of mediation as an alternative means of resolving disputes:

  • Parties may opt for mediation in all civil claims and can agree to exclude arbitration. Parties may regulate the procedure to be followed and the extent of the mediator's power and/or involvement, but cannot agree to exclude the jurisdiction of the courts. Where a matter concerns complex legal debates that necessitate the knowledge and experience of a judge, the parties will have to approach the court. 

    Mediation may also be used for labour disputes relating to unfair dismissals. The Labour Relations Act (Act 66 of 1995), require parties in a dispute to refer the dispute to conciliation (a form of mediation) as an initial step, before referring it an arbitration. The Labour Relations Act (Act 66 of 1995) established the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), a body that facilitates mediation in these disputes. The Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Act (Act 7 of 2018) extends the jurisdiction of the CCMA to cover enforcement procedures and claims for underpayment, the national minimum wage, unemployment insurance legislation and claims arising from contracts of collective agreements.

    Mediation plays an important role in family matters relating to access to children (MB v NB (2010 (3) SA 220 (GSJ)). Additionally, the time and cost benefits of utilising mediation proceedings in divorce matters is evident. (MB v NB (2010 (3) SA 220 (GSJ)) and S v Mrs J and Mr J (2011 (3) SA 126 (SCA)).

  • The Constitutional Court too has advocated the use in matters relating to commercial agreements and evictions. (Dikoko v Mokhatla (2006 (6) SA 235 (CC)) and Port Elizabeth Municipality v Various Occupiers (2005 (1) SA 217 (CC)).

Decisive steps have been taken in South Africa in an attempt to establish mediation as an effective alternative mechanism for resolving commercial disputes. This approach is reflected in, among others, the Protection of Investment Act (Act 22 of 2015), the Companies Act (Act 71 of 2008) and leading corporate governance directives such as the King IV Report, which provide for mediation, as an alternative to litigation and arbitration, for the purposes of resolving disputes. 

Court-annexed mediation only operates within the Magistrates’ Courts of South Africa. The Court Annexed Rules of the Magistrates' Courts (as set out in the Rules Board for Courts of Law Act (Act 107 of 1985)) provides for the voluntary submission of civil disputes to mediation in selected courts. These rules facilitate court-annexed mediation. They set out the instances in which a matter may be referred to mediation and discuss the functions and powers of the clerks and registrars of the court in relation to mediation. The rules, ultimately, set out all the procedural aspects of mediation and further provide precedents and mediation forms.

Court-annexed mediation has been  introduced to 12 Magistrates' Courts and will be introduced to four regional Magistrates' Courts. 

In the High Court, more emphasis has been placed on mediation as a dispute resolution mechanism with the introduction of Rule 41A of the Uniform Rules of Court, which aims to regulate the procedure for voluntary referral to mediation of cases in the High Court.

How is mediation conducted?

Mediation may be initiated by the parties by invoking a contractual obligation to mediate or by the parties themselves, prior to a dispute being the subject of litigation in the courts. It may also be initiated at the suggestion of the courts. The process of mediation is informal. Parties to the mediation do not need to be legally represented, although in practice parties opt to attend the mediation with their legal representatives.

There are no requirements as to how a mediation should be run, but it will generally play out as follows. On the day of the mediation, the mediator will meet the parties to introduce himself/herself and will generally confirm signature of the agreement to mediate and that both parties have authority to negotiate. The mediator has the platform to conduct proceedings in whichever way he deems fit. However, most mediations begin with the mediator explaining the process and thereafter the parties are given an opportunity to explain the issues in dispute from their perspective and what they hope to achieve in the mediation.

The parties will then give opening statements, followed by a series of short side meetings with both parties to explore the various aspects of the dispute, such as their respective positions, interests and the causes of the conflict. The mediator then proceeds to assist parties with developing a wide range of options to meet the respective needs of the parties as far as possible. The mediator then proceeds to assist the parties in generating solutions that are practical and cost effective and in the interest of the parties.

The final stage of the mediation process is for the parties to reach consensus with the assistance of the mediator or to confirm deadlock and to define what the differences are. The mediator in certain instances will then follow up with the parties after the mediation process to find out if the parties have successfully implemented the agreement, where one was reached and to receive feedback on this point. However, it is important to note that the mediator can only make non-binding suggestions and not binding determinations.

In court-annexed mediations, the mediator will be chosen by the parties with the assistance of the dispute resolution officer (a clerk of the court) from a panel of accredited mediators who have been appointed by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services.

Is there any obligation on litigants to mediate?

Mediation is voluntary. In certain instances, however, mediations can be mandated by way of an agreement between the parties or legislation.

Rule 41A of the Uniform Rules of Court does not oblige parties to attempt mediation before litigation in the High Court. However, Rule 41A dictates that every new action or application in the various divisions of the High Court must be accompanied by a notice indicating whether the relevant party on either side of the litigation agrees to or opposes referral of the dispute to mediation.

The Labour Relations Act (Act 66 of 1995) provides for compulsory conciliation for any disputes arising out of the Act referred to the CCMA. The Act requires conciliation to be completed before arbitration can be considered.

The Mediation in Certain Divorce Matters Act (Act 24 of 1987) is restricted to divorce matters where minor or dependent children are involved. It is aimed at protecting the interests of children in the event of divorce.

Does the court have powers to support a mediation?

At Magistrates' Court level, the new Court Annexed Mediation Rules provide for a system in terms of which a disputant or potential disputant can refer a matter to mediation either before litigation commences or after its commencement but before judgment has been given in respect of that matter. In addition, a court hearing a matter is empowered to enquire into the possibility of the matter being referred to mediation and give the parties the opportunity to refer the matter to mediation.

Rule 41A Uniform Rules of Court require that of mediation be considered by the parties before proceedings are instituted. Judges are not expressly given the power to require mediation before a hearing, but may suggest mediation.

Are mediations confidential?

Privacy and confidentiality are two of the central concepts of mediation. Confidentiality exists on two levels: firstly, mediation is conducted in private and the contents will only be publicised in the event that the parties agree; secondly, principles of privacy and confidentiality allow parties to communicate with the mediator, without any risk that the mediator may pass information from one party to the next without the consent of the party providing the information, which includes any agreement concluded after a successful mediation. Furthermore, all mediations are conducted on a strictly "without prejudice" basis and, consequently, information that was provided during the course of the mediation proceedings may not be used against a party in subsequent court proceedings.

Regarding Court Annexed Mediation in the Magistrate's Court, the Magistrate’s Court Mediation Rules prescribes that, all discussions and disclosures made during the mediation are deemed confidential and inadmissible as evidence unless the said disclosure or discussion has been recorded in a settlement agreement and signed by the parties alternatively unless the said discussions and disclosures are discoverable in terms of the rules of court or any other law.

Does failure to mediate attract adverse cost orders?

Failure to mediate will not attract an adverse cost order. However, in terms of the court-annexed mediation programme, should a litigant unreasonably refuse to participate in mediation, the dispute resolution officer (a clerk of the court) or the litigant on the opposite side may submit a report to the court, informing the court of the other party's refusal to participate. In the mentioned circumstances, the refusal to voluntarily participate in mediation proceedings may well attract an adverse costs order, depending on the facts of the dispute.

How are settlement agreements enforced?

Settlement agreements must first be made an order of court in order to be enforced.

This can be affected in a number of ways, depending on the nature of the commercial dispute and the stage at which it is referred to mediation.

  • If the dispute has already been referred to a court for determination and, prior to a hearing or judgment by the court, the parties agree to mediate (either by agreement between themselves or at the suggestion of the judge who is appointed as case manager) and reach a settlement at a subsequent mediation, they may apply to the court to have their settlement agreement made an order of court.
  • Where, prior to referring the matter to court, the parties to a dispute have elected to mediate that dispute, either in compliance with a contractual obligation or by separate agreement, and an agreement is reached in an ensuing mediation which is subsequently breached by one of the parties, the agreement can be used as the basis for approaching the court to compel compliance. In these circumstances, the aggrieved party may use the settlement agreement itself and the obligations therein as the basis of an application for a default judgment (where the breaching party fails to enter an appearance to defend) or summary judgment (where the defendant enters an appearance to defend for dilatory purposes only), rather than having to litigate the original dispute.

Is there a system of accreditation and/or regulatory body for mediators?

There is currently no regulatory requirement that mediators accredit themselves, but there are a small number of accreditation bodies that offers professional mediation accreditation.  Some examples are mentioned below.

The Dispute Settlement Accreditation Council ("DiSAC") is a voluntary association of the mediation and arbitration industry in South Africa. DiSAC was established in 2010 through a consultative process facilitated by the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement.

DiSAC exists to define and publish national accreditation standards for dispute resolution practitioners, including mediators and arbitrators, as well as for training courses, trainers and assessors. DiSAC bases its work on international best practice and aligns with International Agencies working to develop industry standards. DiSAC publishes a national mediation accreditation standard, based on the standards of the International Mediation Institute ("IMI"). DiSAC also maintains and publishes a national register of accredited service providers, settlement practitioners, mediator training courses, trainers and assessors. The rules, prescribed by the rules board, also seek to prescribe the fees which are payable to mediators by the parties.

Then, the South African Association of Mediators, also known as SAAMis a registered organisation that acts as a professional regulatory body for its members. SAAM is a founding member of the National Accreditation Board for Family Mediators (NABFAM). SAAM accreditation aims at supporting standards consistent with that of the IMI.