New Ways in Canada

Medicine HatI just finished three days of trainings and meetings about the New Ways for Families method in Canada. Specifically, in Alberta, Canada, with participation by judges, lawyers, counselors and court staff from three cities: Medicine Hat and by teleconference: Calgary and Lethbridge. The focus was the New Ways program in Medicine Hat – a city of about 65,000 people with the same issues of high conflict divorce and custody cases as everywhere else. While it’s small, Medicine Hat is a powerhouse city when it comes to trying new ways of doing things. It has had a strong tradition of Collaborative Divorce for many years and now it is operating a New Ways for Families program in their Family Court cases under a three-year grant from their Provincial Ministry of Justice.

One of the two goals of the grant is to reduce court hearings – especially of high conflict divorce and separation cases that are clogging the courts worldwide. These cases tend to involve a significant percentage of personality disorders – either one or both parties likely has a narcissistic, antisocial, histrionic, paranoid or borderline personality disorder. The other goal is to reduce family conflict in the community. All of this is being researched during the three years.

The cases are mostly referred to the New Ways program by court order, based on each individual judge’s belief it may become a high conflict case. The recommended standard is an easy bright line: is either party submitting a court application for a hearing to restrict the parenting of the other parent? (For example, supervised visitation, no contact orders or very limited time.) After my 20 years as a family law attorney (Certified Family Law Specialist) and 12 years as a therapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), that has been the clearest early warning sign that a significant conflict is brewing – if not already blowing up – that will consume court resources again and again for months or years. Keep in mind that approximately 80% of separating and divorcing parents never ask Family Courts to decide their parenting plans. So this is a special group of families that need special methods, which is what the New Ways for Families method was designed to do.

Medicine Hat is now half-way through their 3-year grant, and we’re starting to see some dramatic results. During the first 8 months of the program, 58% of cases settled after going through the two counseling phases of New Ways, while the rest went on to have court hearings. However, these cases did not have a mandatory ADR method, such as mediation, after the counseling and before a court hearing (such as is required in California with Family Court Services mediations before any court hearing). During the past 7 months of the program, they have had a mandatory mediation (or Collaborative Divorce or other ADR method) and 89% of the cases settled out of court and only two went to court hearing. This reinforces the idea that potentially high conflict parents need structure and focus to actually settle their cases using their skills – but they can! Of course, their sample size is still small – approximately 50 cases – but the positive feedback is far beyond what I expected at this mid-point.

While I was there, we discussed several revisions to the program which should strengthen it further. When I met with the counselors, they suggested ways to make it clearer to parents from the start that it is a different kind of counseling. Its “skills-building” counseling, which means that the focus is shifted from discussing the past at length and instead focusing on how to solve future problems with skills of flexible thinking, managed emotions, moderate behavior and checking yourself. Some lawyers had concerns that this program may delay cases that will inevitably need a court order imposed, such as with alienation growing between one parent child. While the method is designed to change parent behavior, with exercises requiring parents to make supportive statements of each other to the child, the lawyers’ concern about time is being addressed by looking at ways to speed up the process of decision-making – so that more cases are resolved more quickly out of court with ADR methods. The judges discussed many issues, including the dilemma of voluntary versus mandatory “Judicial Dispute Resolution” (JDR), recognizing that high conflict people generally need mandates to help themselves.

The early success of this program is clearly due to the skill and commitment of the counselors, lawyers, judges and staff, who really want to help parents and children avoid high conflict divorce. It appears that they are beginning to succeed in “new ways.”

About Bill Eddy

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist and mediator, and the President of the High Conflict Institute and the developer of several methods for managing high conflict disputes, including the New Ways for Families method. For more information about New Ways, see www.NewWays4Families.com. He is also the author of several books, including High Conflict People in Legal Disputes and Don’t Alienate the Kids: Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce