Retired judge MaryJo Nolan takes on mediator role in Windsor
Posted: Monday, January 12, 2015
Throughout her long and varied law career, retired Superior Court Justice MaryJo Nolan has been an advocate for access to justice for vulnerable residents in Windsor and southern Ontario. That same motivation has inspired her new post-retirement career as a family law mediator.
Prior to retiring in July 2014, MaryJo was asked by Mary-Anne Stevens, LAO’s director general for the Essex Lambton Kent District, if she would like to mediate family law settlements after stepping down from the bench. MaryJo happily accepted. She now mediates Children’s Aid Society (CAS) settlement conferences as well as private family matters in a quiet upstairs meeting room in the Windsor courthouse. She believes it is always beneficial for parties to sit down together to find new ways to look at their situation.
“I often say that part of my job as a mediator is to turn the kaleidoscope,” explains MaryJo, who was appointed judge to the Superior Court of Ontario in April 2005. “I use that analogy because you see a pattern in a kaleidoscope. If you turn it, all the pieces are still the same but it looks different. In mediation, the facts are the same but you look at them differently. Learning settlement skills has been emphasized at judges’ seminars lately. I think being a mediator is an important role for a judge in this day and age.”
Enabling access to justice
Even before graduation from the University of Windsor’s law school and her call to the bar in 1983, MaryJo had a keen interest in equitable access to justice. She had previously worked with vulnerable clients as a social worker with the CAS in Toronto, Hamilton and Windsor. Those experiences strongly influenced her decision to become a lawyer.
“When I was a social worker, lawyers were not involved in CAS work,” MaryJo recalls. “In the late 60s, lawyers became involved but didn’t know the system. I thoroughly understood it and went to law school with the intention of becoming an in-house counsel for CAS. By the time I graduated, no such position was available in Windsor. After several years of family practice, I was approached by the Ministry of Community and Social Services to be on the training team for the Child and Family Services Act, a brand new piece of legislation that amalgamated all children’s legislation including child welfare.”
Connecting the past to the present
In 1995, MaryJo had the opportunity to be involved with CAS matters again as regional counsel in London in the newly regionalized Office of the Public Trustee. Many of her clients were mentally ill, living in poverty and their children had been taken into care.
“The parts of my life where I was working for the Children’s Aid Society were very important to me in both a personal and professional way,” MaryJo says. “Doing family mediation now connects to those experiences in an important way.”
Though mediation is a natural métier for retired judges, many former justices choose to do alternate dispute resolution exclusively for civil matters. MaryJo is one of few retired judges pursuing family legal aid and mediation work along with civil mediation. She believes her skills as a social worker, lawyer and judge have given her the insight and empathy needed to be effective in these areas of legal service.
“People going through a separation are experiencing one of the worst times in their lives,” says MaryJo. “Somehow, when you acknowledge that pain it goes a long way. When I did settlement conferences as a judge, I often said that what people most want us to do is to turn back the clock. You can’t change the past. But you can always go forward and try to make things better, especially when kids are involved. Once all the roaring is over, divorced spouses are going to be parents for the rest of their lives.”
When asked if she will miss being a judge, MaryJo replies that there will be times when she will.
“I’ll miss the camaraderie most,” she says. “The judges in Windsor are probably in one of the best locations to sit because it is very collegial, very supportive. I enjoyed what I was doing and think I continued to be good at it. But I also find mediation very satisfying. As a judge, I developed skills and talents that still give me satisfaction to use.”
MaryJo intends to use those skills for the foreseeable future at her company, Nolan Mediation + Arbitration Services. Husband Brian may join her as a mediator/arbitrator if and when he retires from practicing management labour law. But for now, she hopes to continue to help people settle their legal problems and provide access to justice for vulnerable clients.
“I still get satisfaction from feeling I am involved in making these things happen,” says MaryJo.
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