Ontario Superior Court Justice David Price has ordered an estranged couple to read three books on communication and parenting and to report back to him on what they have learned at their next court appearance. The books are: Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen; Parenting After Divorce, by Philip M. Stahl; and Parenting from the Inside Out, by Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell.
As an educator, I’m a little uncomfortable with anything that might smack of reading as punishment. Family lawyers contacted by The Toronto Star and The National Post noted that the ruling was unusual and disagreed as to whether the “homework” assignment would have its desired outcome.
It is not difficult to understand why Justice Price might be frustrated with the couple. Their disagreements – over money and access to their twin sons – seem both intractable and unremarkable. I imagine that similar disputes play out in family courts on a daily basis. The mother is asking for her former husband’s share of the proceeds from their matrimonial home, and to deny him the right to see their children. The father is asking his estranged wife for $12 000 and accuses her of already denying him access to the children. She in turn says that the children are reluctant to see their father; while he seeks to end her sole custody of the boys, and prevent her from taking them for counseling to an abused-children’s group. Along with the reading assignment, the judge ordered the mother to provide make-up days for the denied access, the father to undergo an assessment for alcohol and drug dependency, and for both of them to seek counseling on communicating with one another.
The estranged couple in this case have at least one thing in common: neither was represented by a lawyer. So neither has the financial incentive to settle a case that is provided by the specter of imminent and increasing legal bills.
There are many different ways to solve disputes. When you elect to solve a dispute through litigation, as this couple has, one advantage is that there will be an eventual clear resolution. But going to court means giving up control over the outcome of your dispute, and the resolution imposed by the courts might not be to your liking. Perhaps people lose sight of this possibility, or are simply unable to imagine a court not seeing the situation exactly as they do. So they may refuse to comply with court orders they dislike, only to find themselves back in court. And on it goes. The law is a blunt instrument, as it is often said, and it is interesting to see Justice Price try something new, whether or not his measures have their desired effect. Just as a good mediator might, the judge is appealing to the couple’s better instincts, and trying to get them to see that they have a shared interest in the well-being of their children, and that they may even continue to share some important values related to their children’s upbringing.
There is also the slightest hint of public shaming in the judge’s order. In demanding that the couple read up on parenting, the judge makes a clear statement as to what he thinks of their behaviour and their parenting skills up to now. It can be uncomfortable to realize how others see us, but it might be the beginning of some positive change.