This Victorian justice and legal services organisation exists to help and protect the legal rights of socially and economically disadvantaged people, including legal representation services in family, civil and criminal law. The Child Protection Group (CPG) provides pre-court services, in which they seek to confirm domestic arrangements to protect the wellbeing of affected children and avoid the need to resolve the matter in a court of law.
Pre-court dispute resolution conferences involve a number of parties, often including lawyers representing the children, private practitioners representing the parent/s, social officers, the parent or parents, and a Convenor who is responsible for mediating the conference. An ideal outcome of the conference is to come to a resolution regarding the care of the children, so costly and emotionally taxing court hearings can be avoided.
With so many parties and interests at play, the pre-court conferences can regularly deteriorate into positional stalemates, power plays and unconstructive exchanges. The natural consequences of these behaviours regularly resulted in conferences that were either ineffective in achieving a resolution and therefore a court hearing was required, or achieved an agreed domestic arrangement at the expense of damaging relationships amongst the parties during the conference.
In January 2011, our client introduced a new method of managing pre-court conferences, which incorporates a more rigorous process of managing the conference by the Convenor. This new way of managing conferences was an opportunity to anchor our client’s vision of achieving better results for the children and their families. And to achieve this vision, our client recognised that the conferences must be underpinned by a genuine commitment to respectful collaboration by all parties.
How CMA helped
At CMA, we believe that any behavioural change initiative depends on four interconnected factors – vision, skills, mindset and systems. We incorporate each of these factors in our unique Learning for ChangeTM model, which enables us to design a customised learning journey for every client we work with.
Our justice and legal services client had already articulated their vision – better results for children and their families. A mindset shift was partially underway – they wanted to collaborate for better outcomes. The organisational systems had been revised in the form of the new approach to managing pre-court conferences. The key area where CMA could help was in the skills development of the multiple parties involved in the conferences.
CMA conducted pilot sessions in June 2012 for the legal officers who regularly participated in conferences. In these pilot sessions, we provided the participants with frameworks, tools and a common language they could employ to have constructive, collaborative, interests-based conversations that enabled them to generate and agree on high-value options. They were so enthusiastic about the relevance of these skills for their conference system, CMA was subsequently engaged to deliver a large scale behavioural change program that incorporates all of the parties – legal officers, private practitioners, social workers, department staff and the Convenors – involved in these conferences.
Our client fundamentally sought an increased ability for all parties involved in conferences to collaborate and communicate more effectively. Our client has reported a notable uplift in the respect with which the parties conduct their dealings together, and their ability to deal with difference more effectively whilst preserving relationships.
A number of individual participants have advised that they feel more confident in dealing with unconstructive behaviours and collaboratively discuss productive strategies at the table. They now also have the skills to implement a process to explore all parties’ interests and generate value-creating options right out to the edges of the zone of possible agreement, which helps to preserve relationships by ensuring all parties’ interests are considered. The structured preparation, frameworks and common language we teach have been incorporated into the broader conference process, thereby enhancing our client’s existing systems.
Participants have also shared that the program has helped them achieve a significant shift in mindset: They hadn’t realised that interests (what we care about) were different to positions (what we’re demanding), and that by adopting an interests-based approach to a negotiation creates more value and enhances relationships more than exchanging threats, demands and positions ever could.
Having addressed our client’s primary interest of enhancing the collaboration and communication skills of parties involved in conferences, we have been able to undertake a much broader behavioural and cultural change piece by further enhancing existing our client’s systems and affecting a greater shift in mindset in all of the participants. In turn, our client is confident that their vision of achieving better outcomes for the children is being met more effectively through their partnership with CMA.