A Third Revolution in Family Dispute Resolution: Accessible Legal Professionalism

(2017) Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice, Vol. 34, No. 1. (Peer-reviewed).

Innovation in family law firms can tangibly improve access to justice in Canada. This article develops that claim by drawing on empirical data and scholarship about Canadian family law. Part 1 explains how and why legal needs arising from the dissolution of intimate relationships are so difficult for the parties to meet.  This Part draws on civil legal needs surveys, surveys with lawyers, and data from interviews with litigants. The focus shifts to family law firms (including sole practitioners) in Part 2, using new empirical data about the Canadian lawyers who do this work. Three promising opportunities to innovate for accessibility in family law practice are identified: (i) innovative fee structure; (ii) innovative service variety; and (iii) innovative division of labour. A “third revolution” in Canadian family law is proposed in Part 3.  Our family law doctrine was revolutionized beginning in the 1960s, and family law alternative dispute resolution was similarly transfigured beginning in the 1980s. It is now time to foment a third revolution, in family law practice accessibility, to bring the benefits of family justice to all Canadians who need them.

Full text online: https://ojs.uwindsor.ca/index.php/WYAJ/article/view/5009

 

Reforming Ontario’s Family Justice System: An Evidence-Based Approach

by Noel Semple and Nicholas Bala

(2013) Report commissioned by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, Ontario Chapter. 20,000 words.

Full text: http://afccontario.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Semple-Bala-Family-Justice-Reform.pdf

Also available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2366934

 

This Report summarizes research about justice system responses to family disputes, makes recommendations for government action based on that empirical evidence, and identifies some as yet unanswered system design questions requiring further study. This document is provocative as it is premised on a realistic appreciation of the nature of family disputes and the limits of government action, especially in the present fiscal environment, and the fact that there are issues related to family justice that research has not adequately addressed and hence development of public policy must be undertaken in the face of uncertainty. Continue reading

The Settlement Mission in Custody and Access Cases

(2013) Working Paper.

This article reports on empirical research into family justice system workers, and their approach to child custody and access cases.  The child custody evaluators whom the author interviewed have formal roles that appear to require analytical decision-making about the best interests of children.  However, the central finding of this research is that these professionals are actually pursuing voluntary settlement between the adult parties as their primary goal.  This article then proposes an explanation for this observed phenomenon, based on the evolution of custody and access law and procedure over the past 30 years.  The rise of the “logic of durability” seems to offer a convincing explanation for the concerted pursuit of settlement among both child custody evaluators and judges.

Online: SSRN, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2101819.

Mandatory Family Mediation and the Settlement Mission: A Feminist Critique

2012, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 207-239.

North American family law conflicts are very often brought to mediation, in which a neutral third party attempts to bring about a voluntary resolution of the spouses’ dispute.  Family mediation has many enthusiastic supporters, and has in many jurisdictions been made a mandatory precursor to traditional litigation.  However, it has also given rise to a potent feminist critique, which identifies power imbalance and domestic violence as sources of exploitation and unjust mediated outcomes. This article summarizes the feminist critique of family mediation, and assesses the efforts of contemporary mediation practice to respond to it.  Even in the absence of formal family mediation, litigating spouses are likely to be subjected to substantial informal pressure to settle from judges and other family justice system workers.  The article argues that the feminist critique might be more relevant to this “settlement mission” than it is to formal family mediation as it is practiced today.

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Book Review: The Best Interests of Children – An Evidence Based Approach, by Paul Millar

2011, Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Vol. 48, No. 3/4, p. 695-702.

If custody and access disputes are a deck of cards, the trump suit is the best interests of the child. When separating parents litigate about how and with whom their child should live, findings about what’s best for the child are meant to sweep away the parents’ interests and rights-claims. This principle is uncontroversial, but applying it is difficult. What parenting arrangements are best for children, and how successful is the legal system in putting these arrangements in place?  Sociologist Paul Millar has responded with this slim volume, the goal of which is to “explain child custody outcomes in Canada in terms of factors that predict legal behaviour and factors that are empirically associated with beneficial outcomes for children.” The empirical data in this book is a powerful and fruitful new source, but unfortunately it is not complemented by a broad or objective account of the secondary research and case law in this field.

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Judicial Settlement-Seeking in Parenting Disputes: Consensus and Controversy

(2012) Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 309-332

The judicial role in child custody and visitation disputes has traditionally been understood as one of authoritative decision-making. However this new empirical research suggests that many family court judges prioritize the pursuit of voluntary settlement in pre-trial conferences, using evaluative and facilitative mediation techniques. Drawing on qualitative interviews with judges and other family law professionals in Toronto and New York City, this article identifies points of consensus and controversy among settlement-seeking family judges. Despite the general support for settlement-seeking, there are substantial differences of opinion regarding coercion, due process, and the meaning of the best interests of the child standard.

Online: SSRN, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1687268

Whose Best Interests?

(2010) Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 287-336 (Peer-reviewed).

This article compares the law of custody and access disputes with the procedure used to resolve them. I argue that there is a fundamental contradiction between these two things. The former focuses on the interests of the children involved to the exclusion of all else. The latter, however, is controlled by and designed to protect the rights and interests of the adult parties to the dispute. Despite their doctrinal centrality in custody and access law, children are usually silent and invisible in custody and access procedure. To resolve this contradiction, I propose a focus on the costs and benefits of parenting litigation for the children involved. Too much parenting litigation occurs which has more costs than benefits for them. We should curtail some of these cases, and apply the proportionality principle to others. Finally, these children should have a stronger voice when decisions are being made about their future.

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Whose Best Interests? from Noel Semple on Vimeo.

A brief video presentation based on this paper.

The Silent Child

(2010) Canadian Family Law Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 1-25.

There are two possible forms of evidence in a custody or access (visitation) case which is determined through adjudication. First, the judge may hear from the adult parties and the witnesses whom they choose to call. Second, the judge may hear “children’s evidence,” which comes either directly from the child, or from a neutral professional with child-related expertise. To assess the prevalence of children’s evidence in Canadian custody and access litigation, the author conducted a quantitative survey of 181 reported decisions from 2009. The central finding was that only 45% mentioned any form of children’s evidence. Among the various varieties of children’s evidence, assessments (also known as child custody evaluations) were much more common than legal representation of children or direct evidence from children. The paper concludes by contrasting the primacy of the child in custody and access doctrine with the reality that the children involved appear to be effectively silent in the majority of the adjudicated cases.

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The Eye of the Beholder: Professional Opinions about the Best Interests of a Child

(2011) Family Court Review, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 760-775 (Peer-reviewed).

Full text online, SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1327485

This paper is is based on my LL.M thesis, which I successfully defended on June 10, 2009.  The Below, please find short and long versions of the thesis, as well as a 15 minute video presentation.

The Eye of the Beholder from Noel Semple on Vimeo.

Thesis (30k words)

Short Version (8500 words)

For an even shorter description, please click here: Continue reading

In Sickness and in Health? Spousal Support and Unmarried Cohabitants.

(2008) Canadian Journal of Family Law, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 317-375.

When an intimate relationship breaks down and one of the people involved seeks money from the other, should it make any difference to the law whether or not they were formally married? This article argues that it should make a difference, at least when spousal support is being sought and the parties were never parents together.

(Winner of the 2008 Falconer Memorial Student Essay Competition in Family Law.)

Found here: In Sickness and In Health?