Why story-telling matters to justice and to dispute resolution

The July 2016 NSW Law Society Journal carries an interview by Julie McCrossin with the very accomplished Professor Larissa Behrendt, Chair of Indigenous Research at the UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning.

The article begins by reminding us that Behrendt is a storyteller and indeed she is. Talking about stories as a tool for justice, she comments that part of the significance of her work is to demonstrate that ‘there is such as important role for storytelling to play in law reform’.

To illustrate her theme, Behrendt draws on the recent request to the New South Wales Attorney General, by the Police Taskforce working on the Bowraville cases, to make an application to the Court of Appeal seeking to quash the acquittal and advocating a new trial.

Achieving this has been a long road and Behrendt (who worked with the Bowraville families at Jumbunna) credits the outcome as the triumph of storytelling over legal argument.

She says

‘There is such an important role for storytelling to play in law reform. As lawyers, we are so good at thinking about legal arguments, but there are so many things I have learnt from the Bowraville families and one of those things is that their stories are more powerful than my law’.

The story is compelling reading – not just for the insight into Behrendt’s work with indigenous families. It is a reminder to those of us practising and researching in the ADR field that storytelling offers power to persuade in circumstances where facts have been unsuccessful.

The early champions of ADR did us a great disservice when they promoted a benefits bundle of cheap and quick. We continue to suffer the consequences of this error of judgement. The proliferation of ADR services that are cheap and quick has left many disputes unresolved despite their advocates recording that they have been ‘settled’.

Reading the daily newspaper reports of the coronial inquest into the Lindt café siege should be all the proof we need that stories can achieve what facts cannot. All of us are stakeholders in this inquest. Indeed there are so many stakeholders that the inquest now has its own web address http://www.lindtinquest.justice.nsw.gov.au/.

One of the reasons the inquest has been continuing for such a long time (since it began in May 2015) is that, apart from seeking factual evidence about what happened, there is a lot of healing that can’t happen until we have exhausted the well of stories that need to be told. Initial attempts to make this an efficient process have given way to entreaties from the public and the families of the hostages and the hostages themselves. One of the most tragic and consistent themes from the stories of hostages is that they felt abandoned and believed that no-one was ever going to come to their rescue. If changes are to come to how police deal with hostage taking and hostage takers, it won’t be as a result of the forensic examination of the facts – it will be because of the extraordinary power of the hostages’ stories and the resulting damage to public confidence in the police to rescue us from harm. This will be the driver to force the police and government to do things differently and better.

Although stories like Behrendt’s are all around us, reminding us of the power of story-telling, sadly, the ADR processes that are happening in the shadow of the law have seemingly adopted the fact based approach that characterises litigation. A review of position papers commonly exchanged by lawyers prior to mediation makes it abundantly clear that much of the mediation world in the hands of lawyers is just litigation in another forum. It is disappointing to see the promise of mediation so consistently frustrated. Surely we recognise by now that while facts matter, ADR provides a golden opportunity to look past the objective data of the facts to the subjective experiences of the parties.

Story-telling courses and conferences abound in law schools in America and the United Kingdom and the ABA has a number of publications devoted to this field. It is hard to find any evidence of such programs in law schools in Australia. However there are numbers of programs and conferences in the social sciences arena. Resolution Institute (formerly LEADR) has been publicising a general conference being hosted at Melbourne University in November – http://www.thestoryconference.com.au/program/

Perhaps the next step is for law schools to take a lead in influencing professional practice by partnering with other faculties (such as the program sponsored by the RMIT University School of Media and Communication) which have experience in delivering storytelling skills via experiential learning. It is time to ensure that this powerful tool of persuasion is embedded in ADR best practice.








This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Rosemary Howell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Rosemary Howell

I am a Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, delivering dispute resolution programs to undergraduate and postgraduate students. My company, Strategic Action, provides mediation, facilitation, coaching and bespoke training to business and government.

2 thoughts on “Why story-telling matters to justice and to dispute resolution

  1. Thank you for this eloquent reminder of the power of story Rosemary. I think that one of the key findings of Julie Madfarlane’s research on self represented litigants was they keep going because they wanted to be heard. Ultimately this about people wanting to matter, and I think ADR provides us with such scope to facilitate stories, listening, hearing and mattering.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Your point about the focus upon efficiency detracting from the opportunities of DR processes because story sharing requires time and patience is such an important one, Rosemary. Instead of viewing DR processes as a means of avoiding the problems with formal justice processes, the positive benefits that offer something more could be promoted.
    When DR is taught within civil procedure classes in law school, the LACC civil procedure requirements necessitate a primary focus upon formal litigation processes, so DR is inevitably understood through comparison with litigation. Law students who engage in DR learning in dedicated units are better able to lift their gaze and appreciate the value that DR processes can offer beyond the narrow focus of avoiding time and cost of litigation.

    Liked by 1 person

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