Presumptive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – Interim Report and Recommendations (Part 2)

Last week, I began writing about New York State’s “Interim Report and Recommendations (Report)” regarding “Presumptive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).”  Here, I will continue to discuss the Report further.  New York plans on greatly expanding existing mediation and other programs and initiating new ones.  The programs will deal with many types of ‘civil’ cases, from small claims to personal injury to matrimonial and more.

In part, the move toward the far greater use of mediation, arbitration, and early-neutral evaluation – some of the ‘alternative’ methods of resolving conflicts, as opposed to litigation – is the recognition of serious problems with the status quo.  For instance, many courts have long backlogs of cases.  (In one county, and maybe more, a year can pass between the time a separation agreement for a divorce is filed with the court, and when a judge signs it.)

Cases often take months – and not uncommonly years of litigation; such long delays mean at the very least a delay of justice.  Arguably, and in more than a few instances, such lengthy delays can result in the denial of any real justice at all, as the parties involved would define it.

A significant problem that has some correlation to the years of motions and trial practice that so many litigants face is the cost of bringing or defending an action.  The Report states that:

  • The cost of litigating to a final judgment often represents such a high percentage of the amount in controversy that the parties find litigating to a final judicial decision is unaffordable.

What does this mean to parties?

For some, the high costs of litigation mean that a party will essentially give in to the other side at some point, after realizing that they don’t have the resources to continue battling.  For many others, the prospect of incurring bills amounting to five or six figures results in choosing not to bring or defend a case at all.  In these instances, justice may have nothing to do with the calculation.  Sadly, far too many New Yorkers simply can’t afford justice, and so do not receive it.

The Report notes that:

  • New York and other courts have long administered or sponsored efforts to promote more streamlined achievement of final decisions or negotiated settlements, including: (1) a wide variety of court conferencing processes led by judges or court personnel; (2) referrals of disputes to dedicated court staff neutrals; (3) organization of “settlement days” in which courts try to resolve large numbers of disputes involving the same defendant in a focused negotiation effort; (4) mediations; (5) arbitrations; (6) neutral evaluations; (7) summary mini-trials; and (8) accelerated fast-track litigations.

But, these efforts over the years, which might be characterized as piecemeal, haven’t been nearly enough.  A tremendous amount of work will need to be done before courts will notice a significant reduction in backlogs.  The increased scale of ADR within the state will have to be enormous – and, it promises to be.

In regard to mediation, one goal is to have parties begin the process “shortly after the litigation has commenced.”  This aim recognizes that parties have a better chance of constructively resolving their disputes if their conflicts are addressed through mediation early.  As the parties get more deeply mired in litigation, hostilities usually rise, and the possibility of working together toward a mutually satisfactory agreement becomes more difficult to achieve.

The plans for presumptive mediation in New York are ambitious.  But the judiciary appears to be dead serious about making it happen.  No doubt, implementation will encounter some difficulties, both foreseen and unexpected.  However, the Interim Report and Recommendations is thoughtful and encouraging for those of us who believe that often, there are better ways to handle disputes than fighting them out in front of a judge.

 

Presumptive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – Interim Report and Recommendations (Part 1)

Last week, I wrote about “presumptive alternative dispute resolution,” which New York will be introducing (and expanding) throughout the state.  Primarily, I addressed mediation in that post. Here I want to continue on the topic of Presumptive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), because the changes will be so significant and far reaching for New Yorkers.

But first, what is ADR?

“Alternative Dispute Resolution” refers to ways of managing and settling disputes without litigating them.  Because litigation is the way that so many conflicts have been (and continue to be) handled, other manners of dealing with disputes have been labeled as “alternative” methods.  The term – which includes the processes of mediation, arbitration, neutral evaluation and others – has not always been used with respect by some members of the legal community.  Nevertheless, ADR is set to become much more prominent in New York over the coming months and years.

The further adoption of ADR in the State, which will allow many parties to save time and money, is long overdue.  In the case of mediation especially, parties will have more control over the outcomes of their cases and suffer less stress.  Relationships that are so often badly damaged or destroyed during litigation (think divorce, for example) are significantly more likely to remain respectful and functional during and after mediation, which encourages disputants to share their stories, listen to each other and mutually agree on how to move forward.

A Statewide ADR Advisory Committee has issued an Interim Report and Recommendations.  Here are a few of the highlights:

  • There will be “increased training and education about court-sponsored mediation for judges, judicial administrators, court staff, advocates, parties, mediators, and the general public”;
  • Rules requiring “attorneys to become familiar with mediation and other processes, to discuss with clients both mediation and other potential alternatives to conventional litigation and to discuss ADR options with opposing counsel in good faith” will be promulgated.  [In the past, many (but by no means all) litigators have not informed potential clients about mediation and other ways to handle disputes.  If a client raises the idea of mediation, some litigators will speak of the process in disparaging terms.  Back in 2015, I shared my thinking that lawyers who failed to inform clients about mediation were committing an ethical violation of their professional obligations:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           According to Section B of Rule 1.4 of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, entitled “Communication,” a lawyer “shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representa­tion.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Is it ‘reasonably necessary’ for a divorce lawyer to tell a potential client that there is another way to get a divorce without litigating in court? I think so — if that client is to know enough to make an informed decision regarding the representation.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                It will be interesting to see how willingly attorneys deal with this responsibility in the future.]
  • Engage with and reach out to the legal community and law students concerning early mediation and other forms of ADR.  [Teaching law students, who are generally young and who of course will first be beginning their legal careers, more about ADR should go a long way toward changing our litigious culture over time.]                                                                                                                                The Interim Report has much more to say.  I expect to continue discussing it next week.

When a Conflict Can’t Be Resolved – Part 1 of 2

Mediators have long asked themselves, and one another, why more people don’t engage in mediation.  The process has so many advantages and few drawbacks, that it is difficult to understand why relatively few people are at least willing to try it.

Consider that mediation:

  • is generally a lot quicker than going to court;
  • much less expensive;
  • less adversarial, as parties are helped to listen to and understand one another, and then to work together; as opposed to the polarizing experience of litigation;
  • allows the people having the dispute to make their own decisions, rather than a judge deciding questions for them;
  • is voluntary, meaning that either party can end the process at any time; and,
  • allows for greater creativity in developing responses and solutions to conflict; because the spouses (or other parties) are experts in regard to what they want and need (as opposed to a judge who is a stranger, and one loaded down with a large docket of cases that doesn’t leave him or her time to fully consider many options).

What’s not to like?  What’s the risk?  Why oh why don’t we (mediators) have an overflow of clients? So many clients that we need to refer and turn them away in droves?  Bernard Mayer – mediator, facilitator, trainer, researcher – offers an answer to the question that I had never thoughtfully considered before reading his book, Staying with Conflict:  A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Conflict.

I have long believed that most people don’t try mediation when they are engaged in a conflict largely because:

  1. they don’t have information about what mediation is/how it works, and so “don’t realize what they are missing” (including that the results are binding, if the parties want them to be);
  2. going to court is familiar – think about the hundreds of movies, TV shows and novels involving a courtroom drama; and now see if you can name three dealing with mediation.  While people know that going to court (and perhaps to ‘divorce court’ most of all) can be a bitter and difficult experience, doing so still means dealing with ‘the devil you know’; and,
  3. family and friends are quick to suggest what may be conventional wisdom – hire the meanest, nastiest lawyer you can; feeling vulnerable, and perhaps angry, saddened, tired or confused, people follow that advice, usually not knowing what they are in for, and that there are other methods that may well work for them.

In his book, Mayer discusses another reason:

Perhaps some people don’t believe mediators when we talk about helping to ‘resolve conflicts’ (or to ‘resolve’ disputes).   Alternative dispute resolution may not be credible to people engaged in what Mayer calls ‘enduring conflict’ or ‘long-term conflict’.

Example:  If a mediator told you that s/he could help the parties resolve a crisis in the Middle East (take your pick of which one), you would probably be skeptical, to say the least.  Many of the conflicts are deeply rooted and have been going on for decades or longer.  That anyone is going to resolve (end/finish) such a conflict doesn’t seem realistic.

But what if the mediator said to you that, “I think I can work with the parties to help them manage the conflict.  I don’t have any illusions that I or any mediator can help all of the parties I work with to settle all of the issues for all time.  What I can do is assist them in discussing some of the most pressing and immediate problems; I may be able to help them reach some agreement(s) to improve the situation (such as for a cease fire or prisoner exchange during a war).  As a mediator, I can work with them on choosing ways to keep communication going, and help them to take advantage of opportunities to work together as the conflict continues.”

If the mediator is referring to a crisis in the Middle East, what s/he is proposing – helping the parties to manage the conflict – is still a very tall order.  But it has happened, as hard as that may be to believe with the chaos engulfing the region at present.

Enduring conflict does not only exist on the international level, or have to involve matters of life and death.  Such conflicts may exist between business partners,  teachers and parents working with a special needs child, communities and local governments, environmental groups and industry, two parents over child-care issues or religious upbringing; and of course, in many other situations.

Next time:  What ‘enduring conflict’ may mean for divorcing parents; and for the mediators working with them.

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All blog posts are for information purposes, and should not be considered as legal advice.

 

 

Words matter: out with “custody”, and in with “parenting”

I recently came across an article, ‘Custody’ and ‘access’ terms promote conflict, litigation. (Thanks to whoever shared it.)   The article appears on “AdvocateDaily.com:  Canada’s Legal News”, but is as valid for readers in the United States as it is for Canadians.

The subject of the article – how language affects conflict in parenting disputes – isn’t new. You may know that “custody”, the term found in many statutes dealing with arrangements for children following a separation or divorce, is the same word used in the criminal justice system (as in, “The suspect was taken into custody”).  It is also the same word that is sometimes used in regard to property.  But of course, children are not prisoners or property.

But, does language really matter?

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that one or two words can make a very big difference.  Many years ago, during my own divorce, I was absolutely infuriated when my wife’s attorney condescended to tell me that “Your daughter can visit with you.  You can have a room for her, with her own bed. . .”   I mean, how hard would it have been for that lawyer to have said instead, “Let’s talk about how the two of you as parents are going to raise your child.”  Like “custody”, “visitation” is a word associated with the criminal justice system.

The article notes that:

  • British Columbia is the first Canadian jurisdiction to change the terminology from “custody” and “access” to “parental responsibilities,” “parenting time” and “contact” in the province’s new Family Law Act.

How many of the states in the U.S. have done the same is a question I can’t answer.  (If you happen to know, please share that information).  But it is a step forward, and not an insignificant one.

One reason that the article made an impression on me is because a judge was quoted as saying:

  • “These words denote that there are winners and losers when it comes to children,” says Justice Mary Lou Benotto . . .  “They promote an adversarial approach to parenting and do little to benefit the child. The danger of this ‘winner/loser syndrome’ in child custody battles has long been recognized.”

When judges speak out, at least a few people tend to notice.  But, changes that would seem to allow for obvious improvements can be frustratingly slow; and, I’m not expecting the terms “custody”, “visitation” and “access” to be replaced nationwide anytime soon.

By the way, if you read the article, you will see that an attorney who is interviewed for it, Steven Benmor,  offers that “replacing [such] words with “parenting time” would be in the best interest of the child.”  [emphasis added].   Recently, I wrote about this subject for nyparenting.com, in a piece entitled Best Interest of the Child:  A Vague Notion.  The AdvocateDaily.com article does not define “best interest of the child”; but, it is interesting to see how this nebulous phrase – one that denotes an extremely important concept – is used.

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All blog posts are for information purposes, and should not be considered as legal advice.

Introducing My Blog

Welcome to my blog!

My goal is to discuss divorce and other family matters, such as marital problems between spouses who want to remain together, and parent-child conflicts.

In large part, I will offer information about mediation, which is a way to resolve conflicts without going to court.

Additionally, I intend to write about:

  • Attorneys (I happen to be one myself) and litigation;
  • Matters that affect families (such as what children are most concerned about when their parents divorce), regardless of whether the parents choose mediation or litigation.

I hope you will find material here that will benefit you and your family.

Sincerely,

Lee Chabin