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Divorce without Poison

March 4, 2002 The Report,  p. 30

Divorce without poison

A family-law innovation empties Medicine Hat courtrooms and gains attention around the continent


Stu Webb was an old-fashioned family lawyer for almost 20 years, from 1971 to 1990. That was about when the crisis hit. "Family law involves dealing with negativity constantly," he says from his office in Minneapolis. "You seldom end up with a happy client...By 1988 I pretty much decided I had had it. I was feeling besieged." Despondent, he started shopping around for a new career by auditing psychology courses at the University of Minnesota. He took some courses, but soon realized he was too old to start a Ph.D. from scratch. "But since I was willing to chuck my career anyway, I figured maybe I could find a new way to look at it—some way of functioning as a family lawyer, without the stress load."
   His experiments, influenced by his psych training, led to the development of a whole new method of conducting family law—one that has taken root in, of all places, Medicine Hat[, Alberta, Canada]. Mr. Webb's method is called "collaborative law." It is like other methods of "alternative dispute resolution," such as mediation, which have become popular as lawyers realize the psych[ological] and social costs of courtroom litigation. But collaborative law is a new wrinkle. In mediation, a neutral party works with a divorcing or separating couple, but in collaborative law, both parties retain their own lawyers. The lawyers agree beforehand to abandon the case and [leave] the clients behind, permanently, if one of the clients decides to litigate. If they cannot cut a mutually agreeable deal, they are out of work.
   The parties always meet as a foursome in a neutral setting. No one is allowed to even threaten to go to court, and everyone must agree to disclose all relevant documents and assets beforehand; in fact, you sign a contract to that effect with your own lawyer before the process begins. The lawyers represent their clients' interests, but they avoid stonewalling and capitalizing on clumsy mistakes. In short, collaborative law tries to disarm the sides in a divorce, taking away the spectre of the courtroom, and to use lawyers constructively rather than forensically.
ShaneHillbye.jpg (21181 bytes)    Proponents say it saves on money, time and especially rancour.   "Litigation isn’t designed with a future relationship in mind," says Janis Pritchard, who with fellow lawyer David Carter brought the collaborative model to Medicine Hat. "It’s a warfare model." She argues that if a divorcing couple wishes to remain in contact, or is obliged to because of children, they will find that the atmosphere of a courtroom is pure poison.
   For some reason, collaborative law has spread quickly in Medicine Hat. Just 18 months after it was introduced, virtually every practising family lawyer in the city was trained in the special collaborative process. (There are no formal certifications yet.) If you get a divorce in Medicine Hat, you are certain to have the technique pitched to you as a cheaper alternative to court. And residents are apparently buying in. From September 2000 to September 2001, the family law caseload at the Hat courthouse dropped off 44%. The figure for 2002, Ms. Pritchard says, will probably be more like 70%.
   Dawn Weigel of Medicine Hat worked out a collaborative divorce from her husband Ron in August. They have four children, and she did not want her relationship with their father to degenerate further. "Someday we'll have to sit together in a church and watch your kids get married; I didn't want to spoil that," she says. "And I didn't like the idea of someone else—a judge or a mediator—deciding my future. This way sounded like it would give Ron and I control of the process."
   In two three-hour meetings, Dawn and Ron ran down the various custody, visitation and financial issues; their lawyers tracked their progress on a large easel. They had to agree not to curse in the neutral negotiation space, or to resort to name-calling. "I was surprised we finished everything so quickly. Things are a little guarded between Ron and I now, but civil. I think we get along as well as we need to."
   Medicine Hat's collaborative lawyers are feverishly receiving huge delegations of western Canadian trainees on one hand, while sending out lawyers to give talks on the other. Word of their experience is filtering back to the big Toronto firms. But the real feather in the Hat came when Stu Webb's original group in Minneapolis invited Ms. Pritchard and Mr. Carter to come and teach them how things are done in the Dominion. It was a moment of pride, says Ms. Pritchard—and adds with a laugh, "We got paid in American dollars too."

March 4, 2002 The Reportp. 30

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