OPINION: Deborah Hart explains the role of the EQC Mediation Service in resolving earthquake damage claims disputes.
They may have lasted only a matter of seconds apiece, but the quakes that walloped Canterbury have left financial and psychological aftershocks that look set to be with us even longer than the physical ones.
Thanks to a new arrangement between the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and the Arbitrators' and Mediators' Institute of New Zealand (Aminz), however, that period of time now looks set to be cut substantially for a significant number of affected homeowners - and the benefits for the affected people and the wider community will be substantial, too.
Under the recently announced arrangement, selected EQC customers who until now have failed to reach a satisfactory outcome within the existing system will have the choice of using leading professional mediators to help resolve disputes.
In these cases customers will be free to accept or reject the offer of services through the country's leading agency for dispute resolution.
Their choice of mediator would be made independently of EQC, and both EQC and the customer would be bound by any agreed outcome.
The service does not cover any additional legal costs or fees for experts, but it's free to EQC customers and will be available nationwide - not only for those struggling in the aftermath of the Canterbury quakes but anybody similarly affected in the future as well.
And the country stands to benefit a lot. Owning a home, and feeling secure in it, is part of the Kiwi dream. For many it is the cornerstone of our sense of financial security and personal confidence, and it's what thousands of New Zealanders lost in the quakes. For some, that loss has been compounded by difficulties in resolving claims.
How will the new arrangement improve things?
Well, for starters it means that in many cases, probably for the first time, homeowners will get to sit down, face to face, with a representative of EQC to talk about their case, put their situation to EQC and hear the EQC case. It is an opportunity to be heard and to see if the case can be settled, with the support of a trained, independent professional.
The last point is important because in Canterbury, as elsewhere, customers can know that the EQC mediation service is administered by Aminz, which accredits mediators and will provide a help desk to assist those who wish to mediate their disputes.
Aminz is an independent, non-governmental agency that represents the country's largest body of dispute resolution professionals. We set industry standards and the training and qualifications of our members.
What's more, it will be customers - not EQC or anyone else - who will get to choose their own mediator from a list of accredited mediators. We're happy to point customers in the right direction if they ask and provide useful information. Nothing more. None of our panel of professionals is employed by the institute.
In common with any mediation situation, both parties must agree to mediation. For its part, EQC will send out invitations to mediation. But it's the other affected party who chooses how they wish to proceed from there.
If homeowners agree to go to mediation with EQC, they will be assisted into the process by Aminz and through the process by independent mediators. If they do not accept mediation their other legal options - court action or a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman remain, as do these options if mediation does not result in a settlement.
Yes, a trained neutral facilitator - a mediator, explores options, aids communication between the participants and keeps the focus on the issues. But it's the participants - EQC and the homeowner who make all the decisions. And even in some of the most difficult of cases, we know that mediation can bring about a settlement.
Part of reaching that conclusion will involve an exchange of relevant documents to enable both parties to make sensible decisions.
Finally, other insurers, experts, solicitors or a support person - or all of the above if need be - are welcome to take part in the process.
How well is it likely to work? Overseas, particularly in the United States, there are precedents - and lessons - for New Zealand.
In North Carolina, for instance, a disaster mediation programme allows for some homeowners to resolve disputes with their insurance companies over claims. In Florida, a court system that was simply unable to process the number of legal disputes in the aftermath of a particularly devastating hurricane led to the state creating a dispute resolution programme that encouraged mediation among homeowners and their insurers.
Similar initiatives have been taken in California, Mississippi, the Dakotas, and elsewhere.
While the stateside experience has been largely positive, one of the issues that policymakers have learned to be careful around is the possibility of mediators lacking professional recognition or appropriate credentials elbowing into the scene and diminishing the prospects of mediation being successful. This is something that will not be a problem with the new arrangement in our country, which uses only trained, accredited and experienced mediators giving the best prospects to save money, anguish and of course time.
If ever we doubted it before September 2010, what a difference just a few moments can make. Mediation takes more than those few moments, but within a very short time frame, it has the capacity to help Cantabrians settle their cases with EQC and rebuild their lives.
Deborah Hart is the executive director of the Arbitrators' and Mediators' Institute of New Zealand. For more information about the EQC Mediation Service, please visit eqcmediation.org.nz.
- The Press
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