Although BC’s Family Law Act encourages separated parents to resolve conflicts by agreement, access to mediation services can be limited in areas that are far from large population centres. Communities in BC’s Peace River region are working to try a different approach to resolving family disputes in some cases – one that involves early intervention and the possibility of mandatory mediation.
In the Peace River’s Northern Navigator program, couples may be ordered to engage in mediation when they make their first appearance on a family matter in Provincial Court. The program’s goal is to increase families’ stability during separation by providing simultaneous access to mediation, court and community support. Evaluation of the program will provide information about its impact.
How does it work?
At a couple’s first appearance in family court in Dawson Creek, Fort St. John and Chetwynd the judge may order the parties to meet separately with a “Navigator” while their matter is stood down. The Navigator’s role includes assessment and referral. The Navigator will:
The parties then return to the courtroom where the judge discusses mediation with them and decides whether to order it. Although judges certainly consider the parties’ views, they can order mediation whether or not the parties consent. If mediation is ordered, it may be conducted by means including:
The matter is then adjourned to return to court on a future date so mediation can take place. If mediation results in agreement on any issues, that agreement can be incorporated in a consent order in court. Any issues not resolved can be pursued in court at a family case conference with a judge or at a trial.
The Chief Judge of the Provincial Court issued a Notice to the Profession setting out available mediation options in the South Peace Region of the province to resolve family law disputes, and outlining the process involved with respect to the Northern Navigator program.
At the beginning, concerns were raised about compelling parties to participate in and possibly pay for mediation, screening for violence, ensuring adequate financial disclosure, and possible interference with the solicitor/client relationship. The Court has been advised that an evaluation of this program is underway, and the Court will receive a copy once it is completed.
What about violence?
During the initial private interview with each party, the Navigator asks if there has been violence in the relationship and whether that party considers it to be a problem for mediation. The Navigator’s confidential report to the judge will include any concern about violence.
How are mediators chosen?
When parties can’t afford to pay for mediation they can be referred to a Family Justice Counsellor for mediation by phone or videoconference. If they can bear the cost, they are given an opportunity to choose a private mediator. If they don’t choose one, the Navigator will refer them to one of seven private mediators available locally.
How are fees set?
For mediation arranged through the Northern Navigator program, fees are set on a sliding scale based on the parties’ income information. A default rate applies if there is insufficient income information. If that rate turns out to be unfair once income information is available, the mediator can adjust it.
Operation of the initiative
South Peace Community Resources Society of Dawson Creek operates the Northern Navigator program in Dawson Creek, Fort St John and by distance in Chetwynd, with funding by the Law Foundation of BC and donations.