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The impact of evolving relationships on family law

Following a new report on emerging trends within Australian relationships, one family lawyer has predicted that those in the family law space will need to be across technology, dispute resolution and domestic violence moving forward.

user iconLauren Croft 03 August 2023 Big Law
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Divorce and prenuptial agreements are on the rise, according to a new report from AF Legal Group: AFL Australian Relationships: Love, Marriage, and Divorce in a Modern Nation.

The report comprises the latest census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and additional perspectives from Australian Family Lawyers professionals and explores the major trends driving modern Australian relationships and how these impact the family law space.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly following the release of the report, Bill Kordos, AFL Kordos head of family law in Victoria, said that there are a number of new elements within Australian relationships for family lawyers to be across.


“The report addresses some myths and demonstrates the rapid rate of social changes we are witnessing and their effect on the legal system,” he said.

“With so many changes and environmental factors that influence how people think and act in legal relationships that did not exist before, there is no time in history that could compare to the pressures we must endure to maintain a lifelong relationship today.”

According to the report, 56,244 divorces were granted in Australia in 2021. This is an increase of 13.6 per cent when compared to the 2020 figures. However, those in de facto relationships have risen from 9.4 per cent of people over 15 in 2011 to 11.5 per cent in 2021. In 2021, 23,914 same-sex marriages were counted in the census. It is the first census since same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia in 2017.

In addition, the report found that divorce is omnipresent and likely to increase, and divorce and separation a societal norm and no longer influenced by religious constraints, with the number of “prenups” and other binding financial agreements increasing as people look to protect their assets before a relationship progresses further.

“Family law is evolving at a fast pace. Due to changing social dynamics, especially in this post-pandemic era, we are seeing more people look at their relationships and seek advice in matters such as binding financial agreements, entitlements, divorce and separation, parenting orders and so on,” Mr Kordos added.

“The increasing complexity of family structures has an influence on this. With changing societal norms, there is greater diversity in the types of families that exist today, such as de facto couples, blended families, LGBTQ+ families, and families built through assisted reproductive technologies. This trend often translates to more complexity in legal issues.”

Approximately a third of marriages in Australia end in divorce, with de facto relationships more popular than ever. This, according to the report, reflects the changing family law landscape over time.

“Like society, the legal landscape has changed over time to allow people to divorce in a broader set of circumstances. The power to legislate on marriage and divorce is granted to the federal government by the Constitution of Australia. For Australian families, the legal landscape has changed dramatically since Federation,”

“Prior to the introduction of the Family Law Act in 1975, divorce was fault-based, and marriage could only be dissolved by establishing cruelty, insanity, or any of the other restrictive grounds set out in Matrimonial Causes Act 1959. The introduction of no-fault divorce meant that the only grounds needed was the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, as evidenced by 12 months of separation.”

The family law process has also changed greatly, as illustrated by the merging of the Family Court of Australia with the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in September 2021.

“Despite court-based conflicts being perceived as time-consuming, the majority of applications to the Family Court (93 per cent) are settled within 12 months,” the report stated.

“There can be no guaranteed timeline for settling a dispute as it is dependent on the circumstances surrounding each case and their varying degrees of complexity. The Family Court encourages parties to resolve their issues outside of the courtroom, and the majority do so, often through dispute resolution.”

Alternative dispute methods, added Mr Kordos, are among the key trends that family lawyers need to be abreast of.

“There’s been an ongoing trend towards out-of-court resolutions like mediation. Dispute resolution outside of court takes pressure off a very strained system and can lead to improved outcomes and faster resolution.

“However, additional resources to the court have acknowledged it is not always safe or appropriate to engage in alternative dispute resolution,” he said.

“[Additionally], there is growing societal and legal recognition of various forms of domestic violence, with increasing legal measures to tackle them. Coercive control is one of those new terms that has led to more legislation designed to protect victim-survivors. As recently as a few years back, we didn’t even have the language to understand the range of domestic violence dynamics.”

In a national survey of AF Legal family lawyers, the top reason they saw for divorce in 2023 was domestic violence, coercive control and abuse.

“Technology is also playing a more significant role, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic where virtual hearings and meetings became the norm. This is likely to continue and may also influence the rise of legal tech and AI in family law. This technology is already assisting victims of violence give evidence in court.

“In terms of best practices, lawyers should, of course, stay abreast of legislative changes, case law, and societal shifts affecting family structures and law,” Mr Kordos added.

“They should also embrace technology as a way to achieve more efficiency and flexibility. Lastly, they should be open-minded about all avenues of dispute resolution to achieve positive outcomes.”