Black Lives Matter

Something new – Anti-racist reading group

Like many of you, I’ve been outraged and saddened by the recent violence against people of colour, both in the U.S. and in Canada.

One of the messages I keep hearing from racialized communities is that white people have work to do, and that work begins with self-examination. This could mean recognizing one’s own unconscious biases or trying to understand how white privilege contributes to sustaining racism.

This work is particularly important to me as a mediator in a multicultural society. Many of the conflicts I’m brought into have a racial component.

After reflecting on how I might be able to contribute and to do some of this work myself, I decided to organize and facilitate a group to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, a book that appears on many anti-racism reading lists.

My plan is for us to meet on line once a week for about an hour to read and discuss one chapter.

Rather than charge a fee to join the group, I’m asking participants who are able to make a contribution to a non-profit working to improve the lives of black or indigenous Canadians. (For example, Black Lives Matter Canada, Legacy of Hope Foundation, U for Change, or Black Legal Action Centre.)

If you are interested in joining me in reading and discussing White Fragility, please fill out the form on this page

Stay safe everyone.

About the image:  Photo by James Eades, Unsplash.

When We Trust Our Intuitions

lawyer errors in reasoningI’m very happy to have an article, “When Lawyers Trust Their Intuitions” in the current issue of Canadian Lawyer’s e-magazine.  Although the research I discuss was done with lawyers it is relevant to anyone who wants to make better decisions.

Read the article to learn about four different faulty cognitive strategies:  The framing effect, confirmation bias, nonconsequentialist reasoning, and the sunk cost fallacy.

Have you ever made a bad decision because you relied on one of these?  Leave me a comment below.

If a Tree Falls …. Do We Have to Fight About It?

"Hey, you woke me up!"
I’ve written before about how microwave ovens are a source of conflict among co-workers.  When it comes to conflict between neighbours, trees appear to be a leading source of tension. Now a recent court case about a Toronto tree has clarified some of the legal issues relevant to trees in Ontario.

It would seem to be common sense, as well as a provision of the Forestry Act, that if a tree trunk is growing on the boundary between two lots, then the tree is the common property of the adjoining landowners.  If a tree is indeed jointly owned, and one of the owners wants to remove it, the other owner must agree.  However the Forestry Act does not specify where the tree’s trunk begins and ends.  If the trunk of the tree emerges from the ground directly over the property line, then the tree is pretty clearly jointly owned.  But matters are rarely so simple.

In the Toronto case the tree trunk met the ground on Katherine Hartley’s property, but its roots, canopy, and part of the trunk extended over the property boundary into her neighbours’ back yard.  At some point (and for reasons that were not clear in the legal documents) Hartley came to the conclusion that the tree was unhealthy and decided to have it removed.  Her neighbours, Hilary Cunningham and Stephen Scharper, would not consent to the tree’s removal, so Ms. Hartley sought the court to declare that she was the sole owner of the tree and so did not require her neighbours’ consent.

The judge dismissed her application and found that the tree was jointly owned.  After hearing expert evidence from two arborists and a landscape architect, and reflecting on the dictionary definition of “trunk,” the judge wrote that the relevant section of the Forestry Act, “includes within the ambit of the meaning of a tree trunk growing on a boundary line the entire trunk from its point of growth away from its roots up to its top where it branches out to limbs and foliage. In any event, it is not only the arbitrary point at which the trunk emerges from the soil that governs.”  Furthermore, since Ms. Hartley provided no evidence that the tree was unhealthy, her “wish to remove the tree falls short of a need to do so.”  In a subsequent decision the judge awarded costs to Cunningham and Scharper on a “partial indemnity” basis – in other words, besides having to pay her own legal costs, Hartley was responsible for paying over $13,000 of her neighbours’ costs.

Is this a conflict that should have been mediated?  There is no doubt that mediation would have been less expensive than litigation.  And since Hartley, Cunningham and Sharper will presumably continue to live next to one another they would have benefited from mediation’s ability to preserve and even strengthen relationships.  While I am a strong proponent of mediation, I also realize that it isn’t right for every case, and I do not have enough information to guess whether a mediation could have been successful in this particular case.  However Justice Moore’s decision makes it clear that if a tree is jointly owned then its future has to be determined by both owners.  His ruling should help neighbours in similar situations understand the legal landscape, so the speak, and assist them in coming to mutually agreeable decisions.

No Girls Allowed?

No girls allowedRecently a Florida lawyer has been getting attention because he refuses to represent female clients. Kenny Leigh built his practice, now employing ten lawyers, with the slogan: “Men only. Family law only.” Mr. Leigh does not have anything against women, he says. The problem is that Florida family law is systematically biased against men. The Florida bar association, which must approve legal advertising, has asked him to drop the “men only” slogan, but it won’t take action against him unless someone files a discrimination suit. (Ontario lawyers who advertised their refusal to represent clients based on sex would likely run afoul of the Ontario Human Rights code, not to mention the Law Society of Upper Canada).

I can’t comment on the fairness of of Florida family law. All too often when someone claims that the law is unfair or that a particular judge is “biased,” what they really mean is, “I’m unhappy that I didn’t get what I wanted.” Some of Mr. Leigh’s critics were particularly upset by his admission that not all of the fathers he represents are “good dads”. He explains, “If I had to base my practice on just good dads, I’d be broke.” It strikes me as misguided to criticize Mr. Leigh for his willingness to represent “bad” fathers. We don’t expect criminal defense lawyers to represent only the innocent. Anyone in family court who needs a lawyer, “good parent” or not, should have access to one.

Mr. Leigh may be a particularly assertive “single sex” lawyer, but he isn’t the only one. David Pisarra is a California lawyer who also focuses on male clients, but for different reasons. Pisarra noticed that men and women approached legal issues differently. When he represented female clients in family law cases he found that they required a lot of emotional support. Meetings would go on for hours because he spent so much time discussing his clients’ personal problems. He found it uncomfortable to be pushed into a therapeutic role. Men, in contrast, didn’t expect their lawyers to be a source of emotional support. Pisarra found he could be blunt and direct with his male clients, and focus on legal tactics. And that is how he prefers to work.

I think that there are good reasons why a lawyer (or other professional) might want to create a niche for themselves working only for a specific clientele. Both Leigh and Pisarra claim that their specialization allows them to be more effective at what they do. What I found more disturbing about Leigh than his sex discrimination were the attitudes he conveyed about family law: “It’s gloves off. It’s nasty stuff.” So divorce and family breakdown – already very difficult times in the lives of families and children – are characterized as a sport and (worse) as a violent contest. Now, I can imagine situations where family law disputes call for aggressive tactics. But we’ve seen again and again that hostile legal proceedings can make bad situations worse. They make it difficult or impossible for divorced couples to co-parent their children, they cost families a great deal of money, and they prolong emotional turbulence. Aside from the lawyers, does anyone benefit from drawn-out and antagonistic court proceedings? These are just some of the considerations in favour of mediating rather than litigating family law disputes.