Removing 90% of High Conflict cases from Family Court

From my travels giving seminars around the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries, it appears that today’s family courts have hearings in 20% or less of separation and divorce cases. Yet a significant number of these cases are “high-conflict” cases, which keep coming back or involve extreme behavior (or both). These high-conflict cases consume 90% of court time and budgets. My goal – shared by many judges and family law professionals – is to remove 90% of today’s high-conflict hearings from Family Court and have them settled by agreement of the parties. I envision this occurring with two steps:

1. Having all parents with a parenting dispute ordered to take a skills-training program (such as our New Ways for Families method) before the big decisions can be made in their case. Of course, temporary protective orders, support orders and parenting schedules can be made right away – safety first.

2.  Have the skills-training program immediately followed by an out-of-court negotiation process, such as mediation, collaborative divorce, judicial dispute resolution, etc.

Is this realistic? We are already approaching this goal, based on research from our New Ways for Families program in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. Currently, we are at over a 70% settlement rate after two years, and it’s improving as professionals combine teaching parents conflict resolution skills with mediation and other out-of-court methods which reinforce the skills the parents have learned, so that the skills are used right away.

For a copy of the preliminary research results on this program, see the Social Return on Investment Report.

Our New Ways for Mediation method is ideal for reinforcing the skills that parents can learn – whether or not they have taken New Ways for Families counseling. In New Ways for Mediation, we teach and reinforce the parents using skills of asking more questions, making their own agendas, making proposals, reasonably responding to proposals, making decisions and refining their decisions.

These skills for high-conflict parents are different from traditional divorce education classes, which focus primarily on providing information, rather than practicing skills, and which don’t focus on these decision-making skills. For these skills to be learned, they need to be broken down into small steps, with positive encouragement and lots of repetition. Then, these skills need to be tied to the decision-making process. The structure of today’s family courts is guaranteed to fail, because it does the opposite: it does not promote learning skills, it criticizes parents publically, it does not provide repetition of use of skills and it does not tie parent education to decision-making.

But what about domestic violence? What about child abuse? What about alienation? All of these are serious problems. The majority of these cases are already settled out of court, but there are no skills learned so that they often end up in court later on. With New Ways for Families plus New Ways for Mediation, many of these cases can be helped by the skills we teach in both methods: flexible thinking, managed emotions, moderate behaviors and checking yourself.

However, some of these cases are so serious that they will be in family court – they are the 10% of high-conflict cases that need thorough attention by the court. With 90% of high-conflict cases handled out of court, judges can really focus and learn about the underlying patterns of behavior in these top 10% of cases and do a much better job than they have time for today. We developed the HCI PatternViewer computer service to address this concern more objectively for those cases that need to go to court.

This way, family courts can focus much more on health and safety issues, rather than which parent should get which weekdays – a huge part of today’s family court caseload.

I welcome feedback on my 90% goal. Do you think this is possible? Desirable? Unwise?

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Bill Eddy is a lawyer (Certified Family Law Specialist), a child and family therapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and the Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center. He is the President of the High Conflict Institute, which provides training worldwide in managing “high-conflict people” in legal disputes, workplace disputes, healthcare disputes and educational disputes. He is the author of several books, including The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress and the developer of the New Ways for Mediation method with a video training and demonstration available at www.HighConflictInstitute.com as Video Training On Demand or by DVD.