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Family Arbitration &

Our team has extensive experience and credentials as family arbitrators. We teach a leading course on Family Arbitration, we have a retired family court judge working with us and we have been arbitrating family law cases at Riverdale since 2006.

Family arbitration is a private and confidential process of adjudication. Our team has extensive experience and credentials as family arbitrators, given Arbitrators must give each party an opportunity to make their case and an opportunity to respond to the other party’s case, just like a judge. They must be impartial and they must be fair.

Family arbitrators receive evidence from all parties, either orally or in writing, and allow each side the opportunity to make their legal and persuasive arguments. They must make their decisions based on the evidence that the parties have put before them.

Arbitration can be a good process choice for separating couples who have been trying for a long time to reach a settlement in mediation, or through lawyer negotiation. It can also be useful for parties who have a court case and want to bypass court with a private and confidential adjudicator.

With growing wait times and escalating costs of litigation, arbitration can offer an opportunity to contain costs and secure a fair and binding result. Ontario law provides that all decisions of family arbitrators have some appeal options, and that anyone agreeing to arbitration receive independent legal advice first. This helps ensure that arbitration is not prejudicial or harmful to vulnerable parties or children.

We often provide mediation-arbitration where we first try to resolve the dispute acting as a mediator. Any matters that cannot be settled in mediation are then referred to arbitration following a clear, defined process.

Here are some other potential benefits of family arbitration:

  • you get to select your adjudicator
  • you do not need to have a lawyer (although it is always recommended that you do)
  • your arbitration process can be designed to meet your family’s needs
  • arbitration is confidential unless there is an appeal
  • both parties are first screened for suitability and power imbalances, increasing the chances of a successful experience
  • although the parties pay for the time of the arbitrator, all time is used efficiently.
  • the process can be expedited, with agreed limits on witnesses and the amount of time each side will have to present their case
  • it can be done by affidavit or on the basis of documents alone
  • we can include co-arbitrators or other experts if helpful.
  • it can be less intimidating and less formal than court
  • it can be faster
  • you can tailor the appeal options to meet the needs of the situation
  • the parties decide what issues will be decided by the arbitrator, how long the process will take and who will be involved.

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Disadvantages of Family Court

However, there are also disadvantages to going to court. It is well known that the adversarial nature of the court system brings out the worst in people. It can aggravate the very emotions parties are trying to settle and move past. People can feel insulted, wronged, hurt and taken advantage of by the court process, particularly if they feel they have not been heard fully or properly. Research suggests that domestic violence can escalate just because parties consult with lawyers, receive legal letters, affidavits or negative results from the court. Courts do not always keep people safe.

Litigation creates a winner and a loser. This is not healthy for human relationships. Courts rarely address the real issues that are driving the conflict, the things that really matter to people, because that is not their job. People who go to court, even when they win, often feel dissatisfied with the experience. Equally important, many people who have been through family law trials not only disagree with a judge’s decision, but they also resent a decision that will affect them for a very long time being imposed on them.

And having a lawyer for court can be very expensive. Research shows that legal fees for family law cases range from about $12,000 for low conflict matters to over $50,000 for more complex cases. And often it is much higher than that. Few can afford this cost.

The courts are challenging places for those without legal representation, as is the case for at least half of all litigants. As good as the Legal Aid Duty and Advice Counsel are, their mandate and funding is very limited, and they are not always able to help.

And going to court, no matter how strong your case, is a gamble. There is no guarantee that a judge will agree with you or your lawyer. If you lose, you will end up not only paying for your own lawyer (if you have one), but at least a part, and perhaps a very large part, of the legal fees of the other person.

Children rarely benefit from having their parents fight in court, according to Psychology Today Magazine. Family resources are often drained to pay for the fight— money the children no doubt could use. Research has been clear now for a very long time—children are almost always better adjusted and happier if their parents just stop fighting. And they are often damaged for the rest of their lives if they experience extensive parental conflict. Unless the matter involves domestic violence, coercion and control, child abuse or other dangerous behaviour, children usually love both parents equally and want them to be happy and move on. Children often blame themselves for parental conflict and carry the guilt and shame and confusion for many years.

Litigation can take a very long time, frequently years. Parties often go through all the stress and expense of a court battle only to settle on the court-room steps, often for a proposal that they could have accepted at a much lower cost many months or even years ago. It is a painful experience for many and people should be very sure that going to court is their best option before they begin.

Family Arbitration is Generally Faster and Less Expensive than Court

Family arbitration can be faster and less expensive than going to court. It can be empowering for parties to choose their own decision-maker. Family arbitrators are often senior and experienced family lawyers. They are required to take certain training—including how to screen for power imbalances and domestic violence—and must comply with other requirements established by the Ministry of the Attorney General.

The process can be more informal, less intimidating, and more focused and productive than a court hearing as family arbitrators have more flexibility in structuring and managing the process. Family arbitrators do not have to apply exactly the same strict rules of evidence that a judge must apply, giving parties in many cases a greater ability to feel heard and to feel fairly treated.

Risks of Family Arbitration

But there are risks with family arbitration. Family arbitrators, as well trained and skilled as most are, can misjudge whether a case is suitable for this private, intimate process. If there is a safety risk (risk of domestic violence), it is far greater in a private and closed process like family arbitration. If a person is too fearful to tell the truth, the process can result in outcomes that are not in the best interests of children. Family arbitration agreements are binding, meaning if a person later regrets the decision to hire an arbitrator, they cannot simply quit the process and go to court. Unless they are “screened out” by the family arbitrator, they must continue with the arbitration process, regardless of the cost or their unhappiness with the process. If a party is not participating in good faith, or one person stops paying the arbitrator’s fees, arbitrators can and do resign. This can be prejudicial to one or both parties, forcing them to start over. It can do harm by escalating the emotions and tension they had come to family arbitration to resolve. Family arbitration is generally not appropriate in cases of extreme power imbalance, or where one party is afraid of the other. Arbitration awards are not quite as easy to enforce as court orders. And family arbitrators do not have all the powers of a judge; for instance, an arbitrator cannot find a person in contempt of court for failing to comply with an agreement or award. None of the supports and resources available in the courts are available to parties in arbitration. And, of course, family arbitrators are often quite expensive. To recap, each person must carefully weigh the pros and cons of choosing family arbitration.


What is mediation-arbitration?

In mediation, the parties meet with a trained and experienced professional mediator, who assists them with the negotiation of the terms of a settlement.

In arbitration, a trained and experienced professional arbitrator hears evidence and argument from both parties and then makes a decision based on that evidence and argument.

Mediation-arbitration (or med-arb) combines the two processes into one. The parties must sign a mediation-arbitration agreement before they begin the mediation phase, so that they are aware of the process and its implications from the start.

Does the same person act as both mediator and arbitrator?

The same person may act as both mediator and arbitrator. The parties may also wish to select different people to act in the different roles. There are many good reasons for choosing one over the other, depending on the issues, degree of conflict between the parties, and skill set of the professionals chosen.

What are the benefits of med-arb?

People choose med-arb for many different reasons:

  • Med-arb works very well if both parties and their lawyers have confidence in the ability, professionalism, skill, judgement and integrity of the mediator-arbitrator. It enables the parties to work effectively in a constructive mediation process and then have any unresolved issues decided by a person in whom they both have confidence. It is much easier for them both to accept the outcome of the arbitration if they know and trust the arbitrator. Many parties return to the same mediator-arbitrator for the resolution of future disputes.
  • Sometimes people feel that either they or the other party (or the lawyers!) need the pressure of an ultimate decision-maker in order to participate in mediation constructively.
  • Sometimes the parties are frustrated by the time and expense of the court process, and they feel that med-arb will be quicker.
  • Mediation and arbitration are confidential, of-the- record processes. This appeals to people who do not wish their case to be resolved in public.
  • Med-arb is a more personalized approach to conflict resolution than using the courts. Parties using med-arb processes are free to design the process to suit their timetables, budgets, and other needs, subject to the requirements of the Family Law Act and the Arbitration Act. This can allow for a streamlined, efficient hearing process that satisfies both parties.
  • Although the law requires all arbitration agreements to allow rights of appeal, parties can limit those rights, resulting in more finality than they would otherwise have in the courts.

Can anyone act as a mediator-arbitrator?

Mediation is not regulated, although it is wise to work with a mediator who is accredited or certified by one of the Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario, Ontario Association of Family Mediation, ADR Institute of Ontario, or Family Mediation Canada. Family arbitration has become somewhat regulated, with the passage of provincial law regulating certain aspects of family arbitration practice. Family arbitrators must be trained to screen for power imbalances and domestic violence, must keep their training in this area updated, and must belong to any organizations required by the Attorney General. Family arbitrators who are not also lawyers must, as well, take at least a 30 hour course in Ontario or Canadian family law. For more information on the regulation governing family arbitration in Ontario, visit the site of the Attorney General. Two organizations have established designations for professional family arbitrators: the ADR Institute of Ontario and the Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario. You should ensure that your mediator-arbitrator has appropriate training, experience and professional liability insurance.

Are lawyers required for med-arb?

It is very wise to have a lawyer (also called “independent counsel”) if you are considering using a med-arb process. The med-arb agreement contains terms that should to be negotiated by lawyers. Because this is an out-of- court, private process, it is strongly suggested that parties will be much better served if they have their own legal representative (or lawyer).

What is meant by “screening” for power imbalances and domestic violence?

Screening is a process undertaken by mediators, mental health professionals, law enforcement professionals, medical professionals, and anyone else working with people in vulnerable circumstances.

The purpose of screening in the med-arb context is to ensure that each person is able to fully participate in the process in a way that is emotionally and physically safe for them and for any children involved.

Accredited family mediators are required to screen all clients before beginning a mediation process, and the regulation under the Arbitration Act requires all arbitration clients and med- arb clients to be screened as well.

What are the disadvantages of med-arb?

Med-arb is not appropriate for all cases. Here are some situations in which it may not be appropriate:

  • If the conflict is very high, or if the personalities are very difficult, it may be impossible for them to have confidence in the process. This could result in a process that ends up taking much longer and being much more expensive than if they had used the public courts. It is important that the parties are “governable.”
  • Med-arb is a complex and challenging process. It is important that the person acting as mediator-arbitrator be skilled and experienced in arbitration law and practice.
  • Med-arb is an evolving area of practice. Although the Ontario Court of Appeal has specifically endorsed the process, some questions around best practices remain unresolved. For instance, there is not a consistent practice for screening prior to med-arb processes and these issues have not been addressed to any significant degree by the courts as the regulation requiring screening is recent and vague in some respects. These uncertainties arguably leave the awards resulting from med-arb processes more vulnerable to legal challenges.