Mediating through a Tropical Storm

Photo collage of participants at our training course in Roseau, Dominica

Jared, Regina, Caroline and I are sitting in the dining room of the Fort Young Hotel in the capital of Dominica, Roseau. The dining room is actually an old fort which was built by the British in 1771 after they had seized the old fort from the French. We arrived on Saturday after an hour and a half drive through the mountains in the dark along a steep, windy and narrow road where we did hairpin turns very close to the edge of large cliffs. Although we could not see a lot, we will see it on our way back in the daylight. We have been training 28 police officers from around this gorgeous island in negotiation and mediation skills through a program called the Impact Justice Project.

This program is in cooperation with the University of the West Indies and the Canadian Government. Our first 2 days were spent teaching the theory and skills related to the practice of both. The officers have a variety of experience in dealing with all sorts of domestic and community disputes and were eager to hear about the theory that informs their practice.

Today, however, we woke up to the calm before the storm and by lunch time we were in the middle of tropical storm “Matthew”.

Teaching in the dark during tropical storm “Mathew” in Roseau, Dominica

All participants were called back to their stations to ensure safety in the community and we are now looking at the agenda to ensure we can cover the rest of the course in the time remaining. In addition, as the island has still not recovered from the devastation of tropical storm “Erica” in  August of 2015, many of the roads and bridges will be unpassable in the morning so we are not sure how many will make it back and…… whether will be able to leave as planned on Saturday. Not a bad place to be marooned. Prior to our abrupt end this morning, we spent the morning talking about high conflict people and the participants recognized many of the characteristics we talked about. They are an engaging group.

Stay tuned for updates from the team!

Our team in Dominica…

Caroline Felstiner smiling

Caroline Felstiner

Caroline Felstiner is an accredited family mediator, child protection mediator, and a registered social worker.

Elizabeth Hyde

Elizabeth is an arbitrator, mediator and parenting coordinator with Riverdale Mediation Ltd.

Regina Thompson smiling

Regina Thompson

Regina is a parenting mediator, a family/child protection mediator and a certified adjudicator.

Jared Norton

Jared is a registered social worker, parenting coordinator, and an accredited family mediator with Riverdale Mediation Ltd.

Posted in Family Law, Mediation, Training | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Community mediation training for police officers in Dominica

Riverdale Mediation will be training twenty-eight police officers to become community mediators in Rousseau, Dominica. This 40 hours training workshop, which runs from September 26th- 30th, is in collaboration with the Improved Access to Justice in the Carribbean (IMPACT Justice) Project. Our most recent workshop will be lead by Elizabeth Hyde and Jared Norton with our roster mediators Regina Thompson and Caroline Felstiner.

Since early Spring 2016, Riverdale has trained community leaders in alternative dispute resolution in Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Lucia. We will be broadening our training to Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Belize this year.

Visit our blog to stay informed on our workshops abroad!

Posted in ADR Training, Culture | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Your Options in Dispute Resolution: Mediation


Mediation is a voluntary process of negotiation that is led by a neutral expert in conflict resolution skills. Family mediators are often family lawyers or mental health professionals themselves. Mediators generally do not provide solutions, and unless lawyers attend, mediation does not result in a signed , binding agreement. Rather, parties attend mediation to freely discuss the problems they seek to resolve, what they may need to be able to do that and the range of possible solutions.

Mediators do the following:

  • identify those cases that are suitable for mediation, through a process of confidential intake meetings with each person (screening)
  • support clients to make the choice to mediate by assessing the supports they will each need in order to participate
  • help parties assess their own safety risks and direct them to appropriate safety planning where risk is identified and assessed
  • help parties choose to use another process that is better suited for them, where appropriate
  • help parties access counselling, resources for their children and other resources to support the family
  • help parties access legal and other advice needed to fully participate in mediation
  • design a negotiation process that meets the procedural needs of each person
  • consider how the interests and views of children can be appropriately identified and addressed
  • help parties obtain the financial and other information they need to engage in fair and balanced negotiation
  • conduct a fair, balanced and informed negotiation process that is designed to be as safe as possible, emotionally, physically and legally for both parties and the children
  • help parties negotiate so that they can identify their respective interests and the range of possible solutions to the problems they seek to resolve
  • assist parties in deciding whether to settle if so, on what terms.

Mediation can be “open” or “closed”. Most mediators offer only closed mediation, meaning its is confidential and without prejudice. this means that the parties and the mediator agree that they will:

  1. keep all communications confidential, subject to the standard exceptions of information suggesting that a child or third party is at risk of harm , or a court order to disclose; and
  2. that neither party can report back to the court about any offer made during mediation. all proposals made in mediation are made without prejudice to that person’s position in court.

As such, a mediator providing closed mediation may only report back to the court about the terms of a settlement. everything else remains confidential. the purpose of closed mediation is to provide a ‘safe place for difficult conversations,’ and to empower parties to feel free to explore ideas and proposals without fear of looking bad or being prejudiced in their communities or in court.

Sometimes, parties seek open mediation , which can have two different meanings, which can be confusing. Under the Family Law Rules, “open mediation” merely means that the mediator may report back to the court on all of the issues that came to mediation, which settled (and on what terms) and which did not. This is a limited form of ‘open’ mediation.

However, in private practice, some mediators offer a broader form of open mediation, where the parties can agree on what they want the mediator to be able to disclose to a judge, arbitrator or assessor. in such cases, it falls to the parties to define the scope of information that will remain confidential and what can be reported. Open mediation is more complicated in many ways and parties and mediators need to have a full discussion about the possible implications of an open mediation process, including what information may be disclosed, when and how, and how the mediator will be paid for their time.

Additional Sources

Ten Tips for Lawyers

OAFM (Ontario Association of Family Mediation)

ADR Institute of Canada, Inc.

ADR Institute of Ontario, Inc.


Posted in Mediation | Leave a comment

Explore Your Options in Dispute Resolution

With so many options, how does one choose the best dispute resolution process?

This blog series will attempt to identify and define as many of the options as possible. This week’s focus will be on the Do-it-Yourself  option.

The “SRL” (self-represented litigant) movement has grown in the past years, largely due to the growing sense that the legal system, and particularly the use of family lawyers, has become inaccessible to many. Dr. Julie Macfarlane of the University of Windsor has spearheaded a public movement to draw attention to the hardships of the self-represented. This has highlighted the challenges of acting for yourself during a separation or divorce proceeding or negotiation. There are  many resources that are available to assist those who are navigating a separation or divorce without legal assistance. Courts are increasingly responsive to the needs of the unrepresented as well, as are governments in their funding choices. Some of the resources include:

Family Law Information Centres

FLICs are available in all Ontario courthouses. FLICS, as they are known, employ court staff and information officers to help parties complete forms, access legal advice, and information, find useful services and understand their dispute resolution options.For more information, follow this link.

Mandatory Information Programmes

Everyone in Ontario who has started a family court action, or is served with one, must attend an information programme but these sessions are open to anyone interested, whether they are in court or not. Presenters cover the wide range of services available to those experiencing separation, including out of court processes like mediation and collaborative negotiation; and they also help prepare parties for what to expect during a court process. Visit this page for more detailed information.

Free and subsidized family mediation

In all Ontario courts, same-day family mediation is free for anyone in court that day. And for anyone in Ontario, whether they have a court case or not,  family mediation is subsidized, often extensively so, for anyone who wishes to use the service. For more information, see the Ministry of the Attorney General’s website and our video here (link to HL video)

Access to advice and duty counsel

All courts have on-staff legal aid lawyers who provide free legal advice.There are income caps, and also limits on the kinds of legal advice such lawyers may provide. For more information, read this guide.

Family court support workers

The Ontario government funds supportive services in all courts for victims of domestic violence and abuse. Such services can help victims access legal advice, counselling, and other assistance. For more information, visit the Ministry of the Attorney General’s website.

Legal Aid Family Mediation Advice and Separation Agreement Certificates

Legal Aid Ontario also funds up to 6hours of legal advice for people wanting to work with a mediator and 10 hours of legal advice parties working with lawyers to negotiate a separation agreement, again subject to income requirements. For more information, visit

Office of the Children’s Lawyer (OCL):

Under the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is a signatory, children have the right to an age-appropriate role in the resolution of matters that affect them The OCL exists to represent the rights of children in their parents’ litigation, and costs nothing. For more information, read this page about the OCL.

Dispute Resolution Officers:

In many courts, senior members of the family law bar act as court-appointed officers to help parties resolve certain disputes. For more information, follow this link to the Justice Canada website.

Do-it-yourself guides

There are many guides, books, and online resources to help people navigating their own divorce or separation agreement. One such resource is, which helps parties assess their child and spousal support rights and obligations. All such do-it-yourself resources have limits and are generally not considered a reliable substitute for legal advice.

For more information please refer to the following resources:

Read Steps to a Family Law Case from CLEO (Community Legal Education Ontario)

Watch Divorce and Separation: Where to Start from Justice Canada


Posted in Children, Collaborative Practice, Family Law, Mediation, Negotiation, Parenting Coordination, Separation & Divorce | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Professionalism in an Adversarial Legal World

Adversarial - HL

As a mediator, mediation and negotiation trainer, and provider of court-connected dispute resolution services, issues of professionalism and professional ethics arise often in my work.

Although professionalism cross all legal and dispute resolution cultures and contexts, they may arise more often in the family law context, where the drivers of conflict are often personal and historical. Lawyers, dispute resolution professionals and service providers can be drawn into the emotionality and values-based conflicts that tend to dominate much of our work.

Deanne Sowter, research fellow at the Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution, recently conducted a series of round-table discussions (in which I participated) that have resulted in an excellent series of posts on the topic. She finds that, although different FDR professionals are driven by different procedural norms, which in turn define their understandings of legal and professional ethics, there is a consistent acknowledgment that “family law ADR requires a higher ethical standard.”

The first step is for each of us to understand our own personal moral code, because that is the compass by which we will interpret the various Rules and Standards of Professional Conduct that guide us. For example, I recently helped draft the Standards of Practice for FDR Professionals for Ontario’s Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario. In crafting those standards, there is no question that the values of our drafting team informed our work.

The legal profession has earned a bad reputation for adversarial negotiation. Indeed, in the family law context, some research suggests that family lawyers were, at one time, considered more adversarial than other kinds of lawyers. With the growth in popularity and influence of the collaborative law movement, and the exponential increase in numbers of family lawyers taking mediation training, it is arguable that family lawyers are now the least adversarial of their kind. This is not necessarily a good thing.

The training we take, the processes we offer, our life experiences and our own personalities together determine our standards of ethics relating to negotiation. And, presumably, the mandate to “do no harm” guides us all, at an elementary level, in all our choices, including the manner in which we interpret the Law Society’s still-mandatory duty of zealous advocacy for our clients.

In the video, I suggest that adversarialism is not, in itself, an evil. Indeed, in order to do no harm, it is sometimes essential. Ethical advocacy requires an assessment of the appropriate approach for each case and each client, and understanding what Fisher and Ury coined as each client’s “BATNA” in their seminal work “Getting to Yes”. Sometimes, an adversarial approach is exactly what is required for effective advocacy for a client. Somehow, we have come to conflate “adversarial advocacy” with “unethical advocacy”.

It is true that many of the tactics used in adversarial, competitive bargaining can seem, and be, unethical, in that they are designed to take advantage of the other party, create misunderstandings, and rely on deception of varying degrees. But competitive negotiation need not be unethical if those engaging in it are direct and transparent about the approach they are taking and avoid deceptive tactics.

I do a lot of teaching in law schools, and have coached in and judged many a negotiation competition. I find that today’s law students understand interest-based negation quite well; but they are distinctly uncomfortable with competitive bargaining, even when the facts suggest that it is the most appropriate approach for their client. It seems to me that we need to discuss these ideas much more with our students to help them understand there is a difference between adversarialism and unethical conduct.


Posted in Family Law, Lawyers, Mediation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Safety Planning in Mediation: Part 3

The steps that family/collaborative lawyers, mediators and arbitrators can take, based on informed screening to enhance client safety are explained in part 3 of this blog series. Read more about safety planning in high-risk family law cases in Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

21. Discuss with clients the reasons for the instructions or settlement positions they give. a client may be prepared to settle for an amount that you think is unreasonable because that is what they believe will keep them safe.

22. Always take very seriously client perceptions of danger. Research shows that a client’s fear of being killed is a reliable predictor of his or her murder.

23. Know the steps to take and referrals to make if a client hints at suicidal thoughts or plans. have a resource sheet to provide to clients who are suicidal, including referrals to local agencies. Take client disclosures of suicidal thoughts or acts very seriously. take client disclosures of the other party;’s suicidal thoughts, threats or acts very seriously.

24. Know your obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct to report any information suggesting that a person is at risk of imminent harm. (Rule 3.3-3 of the Amended Rules of Professional Conduct.)

25. Know your obligations as a mediator, arbitrator or PC under s.72 of the Child and Family Services Act to report a child at risk of harm.

26. Take appropriate steps to keep yourself safe. there are too many cases where family lawyers, mediators, and their clients have been harmed or killed and where little or no screening/safety planning was done.

27. Pay attention to and take seriously the fears, intuitions and instincts of family and friends.

28. Support both parties. If you have a concern that a party is depressed, address that concern in a supportive and positive way and seek undertaking that clients will obtain counseling and other supports. Design your process with the safety and well-being of both parties and their children in mind and do not proceed until you are satisfied that your and/or your client’s concerns have been appropriately addressed.

29. Educate clients about the harmful impact that adversarial court processes can have. When they are providing instructions to take procedural steps, ensure that you have helped them contemplate, identify and assess risks. Ask clients to consider and share with you their safety plan for the most dangerous times, including when clients are retaining counsel, having lawyer meetings, serving proceedings, four-way meetings, meditation, an arbitration hearing and the time leading up to and immediately following a court hearing.

This article is excerpted from “Safety Planning in Family Law Cases: An Emerging Duty of Care for Lawyers?” by Hilary Linton

Posted in Domestic Violence, Family Law, Lawyers, Mediation, Negotiation, Separation & Divorce | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment