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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Domestic Violence Mediation: A Mediator’s Challenge When Abuse is on the Table and Money is on the Line


By Stephen Ruben, The Ruben Law Firm, A Professional Corporation


When couples divorce, they need to reach agreements on a variety of issues — how they will share time with their children; how they will divide their assets and liabilities; how their family will be financially okay once they are separated; and what the long-term financial picture will look like once the marriage ends.
Family law mediations are challenging and emotionally laden especially when there are significant financial matters at risk. For example, the date of separation when the parties actually physically separate may have a big impact on the actual value of the community estate. Likewise, in marriages of more than ten years duration there can be a significant spousal support component, particularly for a high wage earner. Strong advocacy in mediation is further heightened when there is either a history of domestic violence (“DV”) or even allegations of DV in the family relationship.

Recent studies have estimated that spousal abuse is present in at least half of custody and visitation disputes referred to family court mediation programs (Newmark, Harrell & Salem, 1994; Pearson, 1997). Domestic violence is not always obvious or easily recognized. Under Family Code 4320, the criminal conviction of an abusive spouse is an overriding factor in making a reduction or the elimination spousal support. Even if there is no conviction, spousal abuse allegations clearly come into play in mediation when negotiating a long-term support obligation.

As part of my due diligence and intake process, I request copies of all police reports, court pleadings and most importantly, any court order under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act or other mutual personal restraining orders. This information is necessary before considering taking on the mediation. Pre-screening is essential. I must make the call if proposed mediation will do more harm than good.

As these mediations take place at our law firm offices and not in the courthouse, I engage security personnel as precondition for any mediation and contact the San Francisco Police Department for a civil standby where there is either a criminal conviction or corroborating evidence of DV. I exclusively use the private caucus mediation model so that each partner may be free to express their views, fears and concerns and not in the partner’s presence. In my experience, face-to-face contact may prove to be a game changer and result in an early conclusion of mediation. We also provide separate waiting areas and separate conference rooms so that each participant feels safe and has an easy way to leave. These pre-mediation precautions are absolutely a necessity in providing a safe haven for mediating high conflict financial matters when DV is also on the table.


Steve Ruben of the Ruben Law Firm is a Certified Family Law Specialist who has been a BASF Mediation panelist since 2006. He is a Senior Settlement Manager in the San Francisco Family Law Courts, and serves as a member of the Elkins Family Law Task Force, whose role is to ensure access and fairness to litigants in all Family Law courts.

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