Book Review : Family Dispute Resolution: Process and Practice (2024)

Family Dispute Resolution: Process and Practice, just published by Oxford University Press, is THE book that family dispute resolution (FDR) practitioners and educators have been waiting for.

Edited by Peter Salem and Kelly Browe Olson, this book delivers the goods like no other— all 600+ pages of it.[1] It is an essential guide for experienced practitioners in particular—lawyers or mental health professionals with dispute resolution training or experience. The book will remind them why they were drawn to this work in the first place and rejuvenate their practices in unexpected ways.

Though heavily US-focused, there are three strong Canadian contributors and some of the chapters credit great research and practice tools from Canada.

For ADR professionals in the civil litigation realm, this book shines a light on the remarkable innovations happening in the FDR world.

Starting with the premise that we are in the midst of an evolution away from family mediation and towards a more refined and differentiated menu of FDR services, the book takes the reader on a dizzying tour of procedural options.

The chapter on family mediation, written by industry titans Peter Salem and Bernard Mayer, is refreshing from the first paragraph. Acknowledging that family mediation never lived up to its early ‘transformative’ hype, the authors explore why it has proven so durable, given resistance from the legal establishment and many IPV advocates. The authors note the persistent trend towards a more evaluative approach (they speak of “lawyer dominance” in an out-of-court world) and how technological change may be facilitating it. They remind the reader that “the key to changing minds….turns out to be connected to innately human factors such as emotion, liking, empathy, rapport… when we make strong human connections we are better able to rethink our positions.”

Jennifer McIntosh’s chapter on child-inclusive practice is full of wise and grounding advice, reminding the reader of the importance of uncovering the ‘unspoken agendas of vulnerable parties’. McIntosh delivers a practical guide to determine how a child’s voice can be heard in disputes affecting them, referencing useful resources. “Parents must show intent to resolve the dispute, the capacity to see the child’s perspective as separate and their needs as valid.”

The parenting coordination (PC) chapter by Toronto’s Barbara Fidler and Annette T. Burns is a must-read. Though restricted to non-confidential forms of parenting coordination— not entirely reflective of the Canadian landscape—it offers a useful explanation of the situations not suited to a PC, a much overlooked point in the current enthusiasm for the process. Brilliantly, this chapter makes clear that “parenting coordination is not a crisis service”, something that may come as a surprise to many less experienced parenting coordinators. The chapter provides useful tips, resource lists, and detailed guides for what PCs can successfully do in each of the roles they fill.

Other highlights: Kathleen McNamara’s very practical template for anyone wishing to provide early neutral evaluation services; the fascinating chapter on parent education programs, though not inclusive of those in Canada, which demonstrates the lasting impact of such services; and Arnold T. Shienvold’s roadmap for navigating ethical FDR conflicts.

If I had to find a criticism, it would be in the order of delivery. Family dispute resolution today begins, in my view, with three things: (1) screening for power imbalances and family violence; (2) developing a culturally responsive toolkit given the uni-cultural reality of our family justice system, and (3) understanding the dynamics of intractable conflict.

To that end, I would have wanted Kelly Browe Olson’s exhaustively researched chapter on intimate partner violence to be the book’s lead. Everything we do as FDR professionals flows from the risk assessment we make before we choose and design a process. I was happy to see references to important work by Canadian academics, the federal Department of Justice and Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Clinic.

Of equal importance is Gitu Bhatia’s outstanding chapter on culture and diversity. With its starkly enlightening compendium of the sources of potential unconscious bias that are so prevalent in our field, this chapter is too relevant and too valuable to be sectioned off as if issues of “culture and diversity” can be examined independently of everything else we do.

The chapter on intractable parenting conflict (Robin Deutsch and Matthew Sullivan) is likewise a fundamental building block for anyone working in FDR. Understating the obvious (“litigants don’t make good co-parents”), the chapter offers an invaluable cheat sheet for parenting coordinators in their role as case managers. And Bill Eddy’s chapter on managing high conflict, worth the price of admission alone, is also a ‘must read’.

This book is long overdue. Its contribution to the field cannot be overstated. I for one am so grateful to the editors for making it happen.


[1] Table of contents:

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