Separation is a highly sensitive issue and a critical moment in people’s lives. Emotions run high and conflict is usually right around the corner. This is why mediation demonstrates to be an invaluable tool to support individuals going through a divorce or other conflict situations in a smoother, more comfortable and trauma-sensitive manner. Specialized in the area of family mediation, Rhiannon Paul is a young, talented mediator practicing in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada. Along with her career, she has successfully assisted many spouses and partners during a period of relationship breakdown. Not just in family mediation, Rhiannon likes to carry forward her profession through a holistic and diversified approach. To this aim, she is engaged as a Circle Facilitator working in Indigenous communities and Restorative Justice practices for youth in conflict with the law. Rhiannon has been a member of MBBI since 2017, attracted to the community building spirit and networking opportunities infused by MBBI.  

An early interest in the law field shifting towards ADR.

As it appears to be common among mediators, Rhiannon’s first approach to the profession was in the area of law and legal services. As the first step in this direction, she earned a bachelor’s degree in law from Carleton University. Following this, she maintained college coursework in the area of law clerk studies, which introduced her to the area of litigation. Certainly, such an educational background opened many doors and opportunities for Rhiannon who explored different areas of the field including intellectual property law, personal injury law, and federal public policy before moving into family matters. Upon building her knowledge and capacity in this specific area, Rhiannon soon discovered that some aspects of the legal system were not sitting right with her: “At a certain point, I decided to look a bit more into ADR and mediation because I could see the impact that the litigation process had on spouses and families. I had taken previous ADR and mediation courses during my studies, and saw it as a better opportunity for families in conflict- as well as a quickly expanding field”

Crowning her desire, and somehow following a natural predisposition to conflict management, Rhiannon successfully completed a post-graduate certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution at Humber College, a public institute of applied arts and technology situated in Toronto. She subsequently obtained a Certificate in Family Mediation and Dispute Resolution from York University. When asked why she decided to focus on the area of family mediation, Rhiannon explains that she felt she was able to connect and work more closely with the parties in a way that seemed more natural and direct to her. 

The challenge with the family-law system. 

Upon the completion of her educational pathway, Rhiannon dove into the court system as a Family Support Worker relying on her skills as a mediator. Contracted by a local community agency, she began working extensively with Violence Against Women (VAW) clients as they navigated support and family law processes. Nevertheless, the reality of the family-law apparatus she faced struck her. “As I started working in the Court setting, I realized that there is a huge need, or opportunity, for advocates and justice partners to access specialized professionals or training. Considering the use of ADR and working on a family law file from a holistic-human services approach is much more conducive, and sensitive, to family health than litigation on its own”, Rhiannon recounts. In other words, mediation turns out to be strongly needed in an environment where people are constantly passing through traumatic and troublesome experiences, and they are usually required to confront complex and overly formal procedures, many times lacking the means to do so.

“Lawyers are very proficient in translating the expectations of the clients to the judge, and judges are bound by their process. Judges and lawyers are needed in this system- litigation and otherwise- but they may not always have the capacity or expertise to fully support clients in a way that is trauma-informed; they are sometimes limited to the structure of their process”, she explains. The flaws she detected from within the system daily motivate Rhiannon in her duty. “Finding a way to bring ADR services to the people that cannot access them is really what keeps getting me passionate about my work. It is all about humanizing the legal process”

Child-welfare mediation in Indigenous communities and Restorative Justice for youth. 

Aside from her role in supporting or mediating families through relationship breakdowns and parenting plans, as well as other legally oriented matters, Rhiannon dedicates her time to differentiated types of mediation practices, not falling afar from her area of expertise. 

In collaboration with Elders, extended family and friends, community and local child protection agencies, Rhiannon facilitates Circles to help families address child welfare matters outside of the Court system. The Circle process is rooted in Sacred Teachings specific to that family’s culture and offers the opportunity to build relationships and trust between Indigenous families and child protection agencies. “Working in Circle is a sacred and traditional vehicle for communication, especially in these communities. This is how most of the decisions are made. Using Circle as a settlement process is very holistic, involving as many people as needed to empower families inequitable ways as they sort out what they need for themselves”. Evidently, this dynamic often differs from the legal system Rhiannon worked in previously. 

Last, but not least, Rhiannon is engaged as a volunteer Circle Keeper in youth justice programming. More practically, she facilitates Restorative Circle processes (similar rooted in teachings and values as mentioned above) involving all the people that are somehow affected or impacted by the issue, such as the offender and their family, victim and their family, teachers & staff, school boards, police, and other community members. Working in Circle brings great flexibility and adaptability to the mediation process, allowing it to be tailored according to the needs of each case. This methodology is employed to bring the whole community or the affected group together, and it allows all voices to be heard in a way that permits the youth to genuinely understand the impact of their actions. Likewise, the youth is given the opportunity, time and space, to be actively heard in sharing the circumstances that might have led to the event. “It is about developing understanding and helping people in moving forward. Sometimes individuals are involved in a situation that runs a lot deeper than what is initially presented or assumed. So, it really is about understanding how to help the young person be safe while accessing the resources that will allow them to discover their dreams and be successful in different areas of life”.  

By way of conclusion, Rhiannon reveals her trump cards for being an effective mediator. “To be the most effective mediator I can be, I consider two priorities: professional competence and expertise, and being real with people- being myself” she states, adding that mediation has the ability to support the parties wherever they are at, whereas litigation can be an intimidating and rigid process that most would rather avoid. “I like to encourage people to think about how they see their life beyond the conflict and be open to the different ways of getting there A mediation process that allows for safe conversation and consensus building can empower people to collaborate in designing a new family dynamic.”. Again, asking the right questions reveals to be a decisive medium in the toolkit of the successful mediator like Rhiannon shows to be. 

Written by Matteo Piovacari: MBBI Writer