I have this week been attending the biannual Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) Conference in Melbourne. The focus of the conference is on translating research evidence into policy and practice change. It has made me reflect on existing research bases about dispute resolution in the area with which I am most familiar: family dispute resolution (FDR) in the family law sector, and whether we sufficiently adopt an evidence based and effective approach in designing, implementing and translating research about dispute resolution .
We actually have a lot of evidence about family dispute resolution: much of it has been gathered by AIFS as part its evaluation of the impact of family law reforms made in 2006, and subsequent evaluations of the family law system. Non-adversarial dispute resolution is now deeply embedded in the family legal system as the primary way to resolve differences following separation. AIFS research has demonstrated a lot of things about resolving disputes following separation including:
- Most (80% +) people who separate work out problems themselves, without much assistance from professionals or services;
- Those people who need assistance from professionals often have a history of domestic violence (70% +), as well as complex profiles which include the co-occurrence of mental health problems, disability, substance abuse and socio economic disadvantage;
- Satisfaction levels of people who use different dispute resolution mechanisms (lawyer negotiation, court, mediation) is often higher for mediation / family dispute resolution;
- Programs like Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution (CFDR), developed by Women’s Legal Services Qld and piloted in 5 locations across Australia, to support people with histories of domestic violence safely participate in FDR can achieve safer outcomes for parties, and facilitate participation and ultimately self determination by parties. The AIFS evaluation concluded that this program was at the ‘cutting edge’ of family law practice, not only because of it’s innovative pre-mediation processes to inform and support parties to effectively and safely participate in FDR, but because of the multi-disciplinary, multi-agency & professional collaborative case management of the CFDR cases.
However, the good results from this pilot did not mean CFDR was rolled out across the family law sector, despite that some women and children continue to vulnerable to the significant effects of violence following separation, and the failings of existing dispute resolution processes to address this need.
It seems to me that even where we have good evidence, we need to have better strategies as researchers to ensure that good ideas are more often translated into policy and practice. The AIFS conference has demonstrated to me that advocacy and persuasive arguments are not enough, but that DR professionals (many of us lawyers) need to think strategically about how to provide evidence in a digestable and compelling form so that its chances of being adopted by policy and decision makers are enhanced. As DR researchers we need to think about:
- Embedding research in every new DR initiative we adopt or are involved in, so that from day one, we are collecting appropriate evidence of outcomes and what works and doesn’t and why;
- Be more outcomes focused – but think very carefully about what constitutes outcomes, and how do we gather data of the more subtle outcomes;
- Identify the exiting relevant research and data, preferably locating systematic reviews of such evidence which synthesise the learnings and outcomes where this exists. This is not usual practice with DR research – so how do we initiate systematic reviews, or at least shape our existing research to ensure it might inform such reviews?
- Engage with the evaluation and implementation science that charts how best to translate good ideas into practice and how to measure what works and what doesn’t;
- Consider the implications of research findings for practice, and consider how we might translate findings into policy-usable evidence briefs, rather than long reports;
- Ensure we engage and collaborate with researchers from other disciplines, and with each other, and appreciate the power and insights that come from the collective and from thinking different to our own.
Obviously the translation of good ideas is not all about the evidence. It is often serendipity, personality and politics that play just as significant a role. But unless we are ready with the evidence in ways policy makers can grasp, our good ideas may not make the difference they ought to.