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Collaborative law the key to family law success

user iconLara Bullock 22 November 2016 NewLaw
Jennifer Hetherington, Hetherington Legal

If it can manage to overcome entrenched mindsets within the profession and gain more awareness with the public, collaborative law will be the way of the future for family law in Australia, according to a family law specialist based in Queensland.

Hetherington Legal principal Jennifer Hetherington (pictured) recently attended the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals' annual educational forum in America, which brought together like-minded lawyers from around the world to further develop their skills in reducing conflict in divorces.

Returning from the conference, Ms Hetherington is more convinced than ever that collaborative law is the way of the future in family law.

“Navigating your way out of a relationship does not have to be done on a battlefield, especially if there are children to be considered. Too many children are becoming emotional casualties of their parents’ divorce and more needs to be done to protect them from trauma,” she said.

Collaborative law, which was pioneered in America in the late 1980s, promotes cooperation rather than courtroom battles between divorcing partners, and above all is a more sensitive way of helping children through their parents’ separation.

Ms Hetherington, who is an accredited family law specialist and a nationally accredited mediator, began using collaborative law in 2010 and said that while its use is growing in Australia, more needs to be done to show that there is a better alternative to court for divorcing partners.

“The message we need to get across to family lawyers and the public is that collaborative law helps people reach agreement on financial and parenting matters, with less conflict. There is a perception that it is a ‘soft option’ and we don’t give legal advice. That is just not the case,” she said.

“Additionally, collaborative practice offers parties a means of reaching agreement before their different points of view escalate to a situation of conflict.”

Ms Hetherington said family lawyers too often encounter cases where children are subjected to ongoing trauma by their parents' bitter break-ups and tug-of-war custody disputes.

“It is becoming particularly popular for parents looking for ways to resolve child custody and other sensitive issues. The separating couple and their lawyers agree to resolve differences. They pledge to avoid court and resolve their matter in a way that works for the whole family,” she said.

Collaborative law also gives separating partners control of decisions, Ms Hetherington said, whereas in a court the judge controls the process and makes the final decisions.

“Many people are unhappy with the family courts and are very vocal about it on social media. It is important for the public to be aware that if they are unhappy with the court system, there are options to 'opt out', which are more likely to result in an outcome that promotes co-parenting. If you opt in to collaborative law, you are opting out of court,” she said.

“This option means the lawyers are working together to get the best outcome for all parties, rather than fighting the other party. The system needs more awareness and participation by family lawyers to achieve its real potential.”

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