Is Skype viable for Family Mediation?
Background to Skype
In 2003 Skype Technologies launched a software application allowing users to make voice and video calls and to instant messages (IM) over the Internet. Other companies had created subscription based video conferencing packages, however Skype offered a free and easy method of communicating with other Skype users. With Skype now a commonly used application around the world (estimated at 700m users worldwide), this article outlines the technology and discusses whether it can play a role in family mediation.
Research has shown that only 7% of communication is verbal. The remaining elements – gestures and touch, body language, facial expression and eye contact make up the remaining 93%. Clearly a telephone call offers limited scope for true communication, however the use of video can greatly enhance this. So, can Skype offer a viable alternative to face to face mediation? Can it offer a solution for clients who may be intimated by face to face meetings? Or provide cheaper alternatives to meeting at an office?
In the UK, few family mediation practices advertise Skype mediation services. However it is beginning to be used. So what experiences have mediators had with Skype?
One mediation service we spoke to has used Skype successfully in a small number of cases. For example, in cases where clients were based in different continents. With Skype such mediation became achievable and affordable.
A London based International child mediator spoke of a negative experience of trying to set up a call between a UK client and the partner in Columbia due to an intermittent broadband connection. In higher profile international cases, this mediator prefers using dedicated video conferencing services thus guaranteeing a reliable connection.
Although Skype mediation is not widely advertised by UK mediators, it is more commonly used in Australian and North American practices. A Canadian mediator commented on a positive experience using Skype.
‘As the first “meeting” approached I was intimidated by both the technology and the fact that I was going to be dealing in strange surroundings with two obviously very bright people, he a professor and she an author. In the end it went beautifully. We reached consensus at the end of the second session. I prepared and forwarded to the parties and their solicitors the amending agreement [which] with minor alterations [was] signed.
Without this process it is likely that the Nova Scotia party would have commenced a proceeding in that jurisdiction; which in turn would have compelled a response there with the help of local Counsel. Even if the matter would have eventually settled, there is no question that this couple saved months of conflict (our whole process took less than 5 weeks ) and thousands of dollars. …
The former husband has sent me a letter expressing high satisfaction; the former wife thanked me profusely by telephone – a nice switch from the usual feedback after litigation.’
One difficulty ‘Skype mediators’ face is the lack of the traditional flipchart. At the FMA 2011 annual conference Tom Farrell demonstrated how he successfully uses digital pens during face to face mediation. Similar technology would also suit Skype mediation enabling digital notes using the Skype screen sharing feature during conference calls. 
The bit for techies…
For Skype to work all parties need to have a computer with webcam, microphone and speakers, and to download and install Skype software. Although Skype installation is straight forward, the critical part is that all parties must have a decent internet connection.
Many forms of video conferencing exist, which uses the internet to transfer voice and/or video images. Unlike other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, Skype is a peer-to-peer system, which makes use of background processing on computers around the world running Skype software. This background processing, has the effect of reducing broadband speed on your computer network, and as a result some larger organisations have banned Skype use.
Several mobile devices support Skype including the Iphone, Ipad, HTC and Andriod phones. However the issue for mediation with Skype is the whether the device supports video, and not all of these do. 
Skype also provides the ability to call landline or mobile numbers through the software. Linked to some case management systems, this can enable easy calls to clients directly from existing contact details without expensive dedicated telephone systems. The Skype account is linked to a credit card which takes direct monthly payments.
Audio / visual delays
One major issue with Skype is the audio / visual time delay. The way that video images are sent along with the audio often results in a delay (and may possibly be jerky depending on the internet speed) between the two. Adjustments within the Skype software can help compensate for this, however some delays are inevitable.
Is Skype secure?
One of the main concerns people have about Skype is whether it is secure. However the voice and video is encrypted on each users’ computer with very strong encryption which Skype claims fully protects against unauthorised eavesdropping . Since Skype doesn’t require additional inbound ‘ports’ to operate, firewalls do not need to be compromised. Skype privacy settings allow blocking of incoming calls from anyone not listed in the contact list. It should therefore offer sufficient protection for mediation conference calls.
Keeping Skype Safe
Here are some basic tips for protecting Skype from hackers, fraudsters and spammers.
1) Don’t give your Skype password out to anyone.
2) Accept incoming calls only from people in your contacts book or those that you know.
3) Avoid using the ‘Skype Me’ presence option. This broadcasts all of your personal details and presence information to anyone who cares to check.
4) If you decide to list your Skype contact details on a blog or website, you may be inundated with calls and messages.
5) If you use Skype to transfer files, ensure your antivirus software scans inbound attachments.
The future for Skype
On 10 May 2011, Microsoft Corporation agreed to acquire Skype Communications for $85bn. The company was incorporated as a division of Microsoft, and Microsoft acquired all of the company’s technologies with the purchase. This was completed on 13 October 2011 this year. At this point in time, it is unclear what the direction of Skype will be under Microsoft’s control. One option is that Skype will continue to provide free calls between Skype users, and offer additional higher quality subscription services.
Skype has become an established and accepted method of communication used by millions around the world. There are technical challenges (depending on the technical skills of your clients) which may put you off. However, if you are prepared to overcome these, it can present you with new opportunities for mediation not previously possible. Clearly, before this can become commonplace in family mediation, a wider debate by mediation professions and the regulatory bodies needs to take place to ensure compliance with FMC standards of professional practice.
Reproduced article submitted for the Family Mediation Association newsletter December 2011.