Readiness and Ripeness in Family Dispute Resolution

This post is based on the article ‘Readiness for Family and Online Dispute Resolution’ by Nussen Ainsworth, Lisa Zeleznikow and John Zeleznikow. The article is published in the International Journal of Online Dispute Resolution 2019 (6) 2.

Readiness and Ripeness are important concepts in mediation. Much has been said about these concepts in the context of international conflict resolution.

Accordingly to Zartman, the key to successful conflict resolution lies in the timing of efforts for resolution. Parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so when alternative, usually unilateral, means of achieving a satisfactory result are blocked and the parties find themselves in an uncomfortable and costly predicament. At that point, they grab on to proposals that usually have been in the air for a long time and that only now appear attractive. He argues that if the (two) parties to a conflict (i) perceive they are in a hurting stalemate and (ii) perceive the possibility of a negotiated solution, then the conflict is ripe for resolution.

Pruitt states that that readiness has two components, which combine multiplicatively:

  1. Motivation (that is, a goal) to end the conflict, which is fed by a sense that the conflict is unwinnable or poses unacceptable costs or risks and/or pressure from powerful third parties such as allies.
  2. Optimism about the outcome of conciliation and negotiation.

Wiget claims that various factors seem to be important for the prospects of success:

  1. The parties’ willingness to settle the dispute (or at least to negotiate in good faith towards a settlement) is perhaps the most important factor of successful mediation.
  2. The amount in dispute – An analysis of data from the Canton of Zurich indicates that the settlement rate falls dramatically with an increasing amount at stake.
  3. The parties’ ability to value the case – when neutral evaluation can be offered.

In family mediation, there is no corresponding notion of readiness or ripeness. The reason for this is that parties have little choice regarding when to negotiate as one party will commence the family dispute resolution (FDR) process, generally without reference to the other party. If the other party refuses to participate in the process, court proceedings may commence. It might be a good idea to wait for anger to subside prior to commencing the FDR process. This allows parents to focus on the children’s best interests rather than haggling about relationship issues.

While there are well-developed theories as to when to try to mediate international conflicts, there is little similar research regarding family disputes. Further, the time dimension in family mediation can mean that mediators do not have the flexibility to wait for the appropriate moment for dispute resolution. Some suggestions include:

  1. It might not be wise to conduct the FDR immediately after partners separate as it can be useful for the parties to receive some counselling.
  2. It is useful to have the parties separate financial and children’s issues and to sort out their finances before FDR commences.
  3. The FDR process tends to be more successful once the initial anger has dissipated.
  4. Most importantly, mediations tend to be more successful once power imbalances have been addressed. This process may involve shuttle mediation and should occur only if no safety issues are present.

I.W. Zartman, ‘Ripeness: The Hurting Stalemate and Beyond’, in P. Stern and D. Druckman (Eds.), International Conflict Resolution After the Cold War, Washington, DC, National Academy Press, 2000.

D.G. Pruitt, ‘Readiness Theory and the Northern Ireland Conflict’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 50, No. 11, 2007, pp. 1520-1541.

L. Wiget, ‘Compulsory Mediation as a Prerequisite before Commencement of Court Proceedings- Useful Requirement to Save Resources or Waste of Time and Money?’, UNSW Law Research Paper 47, 2012.

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