Family law understood as a system of coercion

In an opinion piece in Minneapolis’s Star-Tribune last month, the Hon. Bruce Peterson, district court judge inHennepin County, Minnesota, writes that it is time “to consider taking divorce out of the hands of lawyers and judges and putting it in the hands of the parties and whatever advisers they choose.”

The worst feature of the current system[family law] is the conflict it generates. We call it an adversary system, but a better term would be a coercion system. The parties bash each other in order to persuade the judge to coerce the other person to do something they don’t want to do.

A wise friend of mine, a psychologist, once told me that the normal response of a healthy adult when faced with coercion is to resist. Sensing impending coercion, people often come to court defensive, anxious, with their heels dug in. Despite thoughtful, creative strides by Minnesota courts to reduce conflict, the specter of coercion still haunts divorce cases and promotes conflict. And it is conflict that hurts children, regardless of the custody label.

Dan Simon, a transformative mediator who practises in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, contacted Judge Peterson:

In response to my email he wrote, “I think of transformative mediation as one of the hopeful tools in this field and believe it will have an ever more important role to play.” That email led to an exchange that resulted in Judge Peterson visiting my office, where I showed him a video of myself mediating a parenting dispute. Later he emailed me, “Thank you again for taking the time to show me your process. I am very impressed at the discipline and subjugation of ego it requires. Let’s stay in touch, big changes are coming.”

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