Interview with Sofia Papaspyropoulou, Reed Smith project co-lead of Tower Hamlets Mediation Project

 Irene Grindell

Irene Grindell

We interviewed Sofia Papaspyropoulou on her project leader role with Tower Hamlets Mediation Project (THMP) at our law firm partner Reed Smith, the latest developments around the Project and the importance of mediation in our communities.

Sofia, what attracted you to get involved in the project?

I was introduced to the project as a future trainee at Reed Smith and decided to sign up for the training sessions as a way to become involved with the firm’s pro bono initiatives. It was not long before I realised that I would be training to offer a valuable service to the Tower Hamlets community, I would be acquiring a useful skillset not just for a lawyer or a mediator but really for anyone who has or will ever experience inter-personal conflict, and I would be joining a vibrant community of people who want to give back to the borough. I took on my first referral once I joined the firm as a trainee and I have not stopped since! In 2020, I joined my colleague Jess Wheeler as a joint coordinator of the project at the firm.

Tell us more about the recent developments around the Tower Hamlets Mediation Project?

The project has truly evolved over the last few years, and this is due to a great extent to the pandemic. Two of the pillars of mediation are active listening and building rapport with the clients, both are indispensable in order to inspire trust and allow clients to fully engage with the process. Pre-pandemic mediators would visit the clients in their homes, they would witness the client’s living conditions firsthand and they would use their body language to show care, attention, and empathy towards the parties. The pandemic presented us with a challenging combination of circumstances: on the one hand, in-person mediations were no longer an option, on the other hand, restrictions to people’s movements meant a steep rise in nuisance community disputes.

Jess Wheeler and I worked with our brilliant project leader and co-founder of THMP, Irene Grindell, and we came up with an innovative approach to mediation hoping to achieve the same if not better results for Tower Hamlets residents remotely. Remote mediations presented a steep learning curve for us, but I can now confidently say that the challenges were overcome and the mediations that we now take on are almost exclusively conducted virtually.

Having seen the impressive impact that the project can have on the local community, we hope to be able to reach more and more people in the coming years. This was the driver behind the creation of the project’s website last year. The website serves as an easy-to-navigate point of reference for potential clients, housing officers or anyone wanting to know what community mediation is about and how you can contact us.

Why is mediation so important in the community context?

Many of our clients are individuals of limited means, living in less-than-ideal conditions, most often in Council estates. Access to mediation or coaching services is not available other than on a pro bono basis and a sense of frustration and hopelessness is often prevalent. Also, a big portion of our client demographic are members of the Bangladeshi community who often are not conversant in English. This, as one can imagine, presents another significant barrier to resolving a dispute, for instance, with an English-speaking neighbour.

The project is uniquely placed to address these challenges because it combines the experience of Irene’s group of trusted external mediators with our enthusiastic volunteers at Reed Smith. No referral remains unanswered either internally at Reed Smith or by the external network of mediators. Importantly, the project benefits massively from the contribution of Bengali speakers (mostly young mothers) from the borough who volunteer as interpreters – this helps remove language barriers in mediations but also helps the volunteer interpreters themselves to enhance their professional skills and improve their job opportunities.

Finally, what has been the feedback of the Reed Smith volunteers working with THMP?

The feedback from our volunteers has been consistently enthusiastic: both the training and the mediation referrals allow volunteers to build a valuable skillset that is truly transferrable in law and in life. I can say from personal experience that few things are more rewarding than seeing two people put aside their differences and make a conscious decision to coexist in harmony knowing that they now have the tools to tackle any issue that may arise between them in the future.

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THMP WEBSITE

Welcome to our new THMP website We are delighted and excited to launch our new website. After speaking with many of our clients and partners

FAQ

Most frequent questions and answers

Mediation gives you a safe space for difficult conversations.

It is a voluntary process where independent, impartial mediators help people recognise and acknowledge their position in a dispute and work towards resolving the conflict. 

Community mediation is confidential and flexible to the specific needs of all participants. THMP mediators facilitate the process without giving advice or expressing opinions. They work in an empathic and non-judgemental way in an informal setting which puts all parties at ease. 

The process

  • All sessions are currently conducted online using video conferencing. 
  • Mediators initially meet up separately.
  • If both parties agree, a joint online mediation session is arranged. 
  • Parties are encouraged to talk openly and respectfully and acknowledge their differences and recognise common grounds and shared needs. 
  • Mediators explore options with the parties, affirm steps made and encourage new ideas for getting their needs met. 
  • Mediators help the parties to discover their own solution and make choices based on realistic expectations. 

Mediation can help you to sort out in your mind what is ‘your’ best way forward, a bit like coaching. We can help you to talk to your neighbour in a safe way after we have coached you both. 

You can stop the process at absolutely any point. It’s always your call – the ball is in your court. 

If mediation doesn’t work, you have lost nothing as it’s free, but more importantly you will gain confidence in deciding what you want to do next as we help you to make a plan moving forward.

There are no costs involved to anyone at any stage of the mediation process.