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Acrimonious separation increased by 30% since 2020

As new research reveals acrimonious separation to be on the rise, family lawyers have been urged to work with external stakeholders to set clients on a path to minimise and resolve conflict quickly during separation proceedings.

user iconLauren Croft 17 August 2023 Big Law
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New research from The Separation Guide has shown that dealing with divorce without lawyers is on the rise in Australia – but that many people are not suited for this “DIY” approach, resulting in a potential increase in unfavourable outcomes.

The landmark report encompasses responses from almost 17,000 people across Australia and combines three years of research. The insights presented in the report are drawn from customer behaviour analytics from the start of 2020 to the end of 2022, including 228,323 website users, 16,319 anonymised Q&A submissions representing millions of data points, 568 completions of a 2023 Impact Survey and anecdotal feedback from The Separation Guide’s network.

According to the research, 33.2 per cent of people divorced without lawyers, with only 7 per cent being well suited to this method.


Additionally, the research found that 42.5 per cent of people with a primary caregiver in the relationship had reached a 50-50 spot without seeking any legal advice. However, the report noted that while 50-50 may seem fair, in many cases, it is not and has a number of negative long-term effects, such as a reduced superannuation balance.

Only 40 per cent of separated couples were on reasonable terms, compared to 70 per cent in 2020. Further, acrimonious pathways to divorce have grown from 23 per cent in 2020 to 51 per cent by the end of last year, with amicable pathways shrinking in comparison.

This is something Future Family Law legal practice director Selena James confirmed to Lawyers Weekly.

“Acrimonious separation seems to be on [the] rise. In the last 17 years, my experience has been that during and post-financial crisis, there is a rise in family law work. My view is that the cost of living and current housing crisis that is being experienced presently is placing separating families in a difficult position, similar to what was experienced during COVID lockdowns, to remain living in an environment that is forced upon them by external forces. As human beings, this forces individuals into ‘flight or fight’ mode, which doesn’t always bring about the most sensible or rational behaviour or decisions,” she explained.

“When a relationship comes to an end, the parties involved, including the children, need a safe space to grieve and process this change of life event, which often can’t happen when independent living options and access to support services and advice [are] not available to them due to financial constraints and housing availability.

“This only then creates an environment [that] is tense and prone to conflict between parties, which then impacts the children who are also caught in this living environment. Parties are often becoming positional in negotiations due to fear of being homeless, and that entrenchment, driven by fear, only creates further acrimony and conflict between the separating parties.”

Concerningly, the research also showed that family lawyers were seeing an increased number of clients asking about family violence. It was revealed that 11.46 per cent of clients asked for information about family violence in 2021, and 13.64 per cent in 2022 – marking a 17.4 per cent increase over 12 months.

Angela Harbinson, chief executive and co-founder of The Separation Guide, said that education in the family law space would remain “critical” moving forward.

“One of the key takeaways from the report is that early education is critical – those that had access to early education and were connected to the right professional advice had better outcomes on every metric, including personal and societal metrics. The report also showed that those who were in high stress or stages of depression, anger, denial or bargaining were more likely to be put into acrimonious pathways,” she said.

“The message here is that holistic support helps people move out of that ‘fight and flight’ mode before making important decisions. One important way is for lawyers to work with other professionals to achieve the best outcomes for their clients. That is where counselling and coaching services are so helpful, along with help deploying different communication styles with your ex-partner, particularly when cohabitating.”

Therefore, family lawyers need to be aware of these trends – and strive for amicable settlements and dispute resolution as much as possible.

“As family lawyers, we have a responsibility to set our clients on a path that will minimise and resolve conflict between separating families as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Getting advice early from the right family lawyer who is focused on resolution can set parties on the right path towards an amicable settlement,” Ms James added.

“Often, parties delay getting advice early due to the fear of costs, but there are definitely options like The Separation Guide and many family lawyers who offer free or discounted initial consults, which can be invaluable in providing knowledge and information and a strategy to resolve the conflict in an amicable way without the need for court proceedings.”

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