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Family Law Arbitration

Under the provisions of the Family Law Act (Section 8(2)) lawyers have an obligation to advise parties who consult with them about various dispute resolution options. One option for consideration is arbitration.

What is Arbitration?

Arbitration is identified in the Family Law Act (Section 1) as “family dispute resolution”: a process used by parties to a family law dispute to attempt to resolve one or more of the disputed issues outside of court.

Family law arbitration is governed by the Arbitration Act. Section 2.1 of the Arbitration Act sets out specific requirements for an arbitration agreement in family law disputes.

Arbitration is a private dispute resolution mechanism where parties, who have been unable to reach a resolution to an issue, agree to appoint an independent and neutral party (an arbitrator) to make a decision that is binding on both parties.

From my perspective, privacy and control over the process are some of the significant benefits of arbitration. Parties generally do not have control of who sits in the courtroom watching the proceedings and hearing the evidence (for example a neighbour could be in the courtroom on an unrelated matter and hear your case as they wait for their case to be called). By contrast, in arbitration the parties decide who is to be present (and generally it is limited to the parties, their lawyers and the arbitrator). Additionally, parties and their lawyers can set the schedule of an arbitration to a far greater extent than they are able to in a court proceeding (in a court proceeding the trial list or docket list may be full and despite being prepared to proceed a hearing will be moved to another date on short notice).

As described on clicklaw.com:

“Arbitration is a lot more formal than mediation, because the arbitration process can be very much like the court process. Each party presents evidence or proof of facts presented to a judge at a hearing or trial. Evidence can be given through the oral testimony of witnesses, in writing as business records and other documents, or in the form of physical objects. Evidence must be admissible according to the rules of court and the rules of evidence. See “circumstantial evidence,” “hearsay,” and “testimony.” and arguments, and tries to persuade the arbitrator that their position is the right one. Mediation, on the other hand, is often more like a conversation, with no evidence apart from helpful things like financial statements and with no formal rules of procedure.”

What is Mediation/Arbitration (“Med/Arb”)?

Med/Arb is a dispute resolution mechanism that is a variation of arbitration. The mutually agreed upon independent and neutral arbitrator starts out as a mediator but in the event the parties cannot reach a decision through mediation the mediator becomes an arbitrator and makes a decision that is binding on the parties.

Further described on clicklaw.com:

“In a med/arb process, the parties sign an agreement that commits them to the mediation process and describes what will happen if agreement can’t be reached. The agreement should say whether the mediator will use information from the mediation phase to make decisions in the arbitration phase, and how other evidence will be presented in the arbitration phase. It’s really important to understand what will trigger the end of mediation and the beginning of arbitration, and whether the mediator will have the power to make decisions as an arbitrator on all of the issues or just some of them.”

Who can act as an arbitrator?:

The qualifications for family law arbitrators are set out in the Family Law Act Regulation (Section 5).

Where can I find an arbitrator?:

Resources for arbitration:

Divorce: Mr. Smith v. Mrs. Smith… if that is your real name?

Should privacy be granted sparingly in court proceedings? Or should it be allowed if both parties consent?

A recent article by Ian Mulgrew of the Vancouver Sun comments on a judgment in which Justice Griffin of the Supreme Court of British Columbia criticized the practice of obscuring names in family law proceedings.  In the case of A.B. v. C.D. the husband brought an application to review the amount of spousal support he had to pay to his wife.  The husband was paying $11,500.00 per month based on the parties’ separation agreement signed in 2008 (his average income over the three years since 2008 was approximately $57,000.00 per month).

On the matter of privacy, and obscuring names, Justice Griffin stated:

Lastly, I observe that the parties entered into a consent order early on in the proceeding to camouflage their names in any court judgment by use of initials.  Counsel for the respondent was quite adamant that this remain in place. I am not convinced that such a consent court order is appropriate or that it can bind subsequent judges.  As held in M.E.H. v. Williams, 2012 ONCA 35 at para. 34:

“…the centrality of freedom of expression and the open court principle to both Canadian democracy and individual freedoms in Canada demands that a party seeking to limit freedom of expression and the openness of the courts carry a significant legal and evidentiary burden.”

The interest in open court proceedings is a public interest, not something that private parties can negotiate away.  Furthermore, the fact that parties have to put their names to their pleadings in litigation promotes honesty and reasonableness.  Where one party happens to be a lawyer, that status does not warrant special treatment as many vulnerable parties do not have the luxury of anonymity in litigation.  On occasion where some particular information could cause harm if released, such as information that could be the subject of identity theft, reasons for judgment can be crafted to simply not refer to the confidential particulars.

In the proceeding before me I did not see any information that would have justified hiding the litigants’ names.  Having said that, given that no party sought a change in this status and it was so strongly opposed by the Husband, and given that I have not heard submissions on it, I will for the time being not make any ruling changing the style of proceedings.

As an interesting note – in some cases, such as C.A.R. v. R.M.R., the decision of the court provides details that are so locally well known, it is not difficult to determine who the parties involved are.

Who could this be?" The respondent is a former Olympic athlete. He gained fame in his sport in the late 1990s...In 2009 or 2010 the respondent accepted a nomination to run as a candidate in a Federal election."

In the case referenced by Justice Griffin, M.E.H.Williams, the Ontario Court of Appeal lifted the publication ban on divorce proceedings between David Russell Williams and his wife Mary Elizabeth Harriman (“M.E.H.”).  The publication ban, originally granted by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, prevented the  publication of her name, address, employer, income or medical information.

As in many high profile case, there were parties who wanted to know the details of the M.E.H.Williams divorce.  Media groups such as the Ottawa Citizen and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were granted intervener status in the motion and sought to have the non-publication and sealing order lifted.

As sumarized in an article on CBC:

The appeal court said in its decision that the personal concerns of public embarrassment are not enough by themselves to justify non-publication or sealing orders and said assessing emotional distress versus emotional harm is a matter of degree to be measured against the media’s right to report on court proceedings.

The law in regard to publication bans generally requires two step inquiry (as directed by the Supreme Court of Canada):

  • such an order is necessary in order to prevent a serious risk to the proper administration of justice because reasonably alternative measures will not prevent the risk; and
  • the salutary effects of the publication ban outweigh the deleterious effects on the rights and interests of the parties and the public, including the effects on the right to free expression, the right of the accused to a fair and public trial, and the efficacy of the administration of justice.

What do you think?

Should parties be able to agree to a publication ban in their divorce proceedings, or is it in the interest of the administration of justice to have names made public?

One option for separating spouses, if they do not want their divorces to be in the public eye, is to agree to a confidential dispute resolution process, such as mediation or arbitration.

While the parties (if married) would still have to file court documents to have a divorce granted, they could limit the information made public to the basics (their names, their date of marriage etc.).  If all you are seeking from the court is a divorce, and you have no children, the information you need to provide is quite limited.