“Our family law system in Australia is in crisis!” This has become an all too familiar headline, a catch cry on repeat.
Despite the voluminous amounts of research screaming out at us about how destructive the litigious process can be for families, who we all know are already in crisis, so many of us still seem to prefer the comfort of the family court. Isn’t it time we dropped the word “alternative” from “alternative dispute resolution” and embraced it wholeheartedly?
When a client walks into our office, our first thoughts should be “what keeps them up at night” and “how do they want their new family unit to look”, instead of entering a combative and strategic war of words with the lawyer on the other side.
Let’s stop viewing the legal representative for the other party as our opponent and start working as a team engaged to truly assist families through the process of ending their relationship with respect and dignity and creating a different and constructive one into the future.
When families fall apart, it is our job as professionals to do all that we can to assist them in finding ways, in the midst of the turmoil, when emotions are charged and money is often tight, to focus on their future.
Expecting separating parties to remain calm, child-focused and respectful, to effectively place their lives on hold, for a period of three to four years until the court makes a determination, is simply unrealistic.
I walked away from practising as a traditional family lawyer a little over two years ago and established a boutique family dispute resolution business called Divorce Done Differently. The soul focus of my side step was to create a space where families in turmoil could work through their legal and emotional worries with a team of professionals, who were on the same page.
Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice (ICP) is at the forefront of this shift. In essence, it is a holistic approach to separation and divorce, where families work out what they need to discuss and how their lives should look, without going to court. ICP has been a game-changer for me and for family law in Australia and worldwide.
In essence, ICP allows parties to:
1. Stay out of court;
2. Have open and transparent negotiations;
3. Be respectful and focus on the needs and interests of all involved; and
4. Engage a team of professionals who are committed to a similar ethos.
ICP has hit the ground running in Australia (even if we were a little slow on the uptake). It is practised in each state and territory, with the number of professionals and practice groups growing by the day. It offers separating families and the team of professionals assisting them (lawyers, health professionals, accountants and financial advisers) with a truly unique and wonderful opportunity to resolve the issues that flow from a separation and divorce with the added bonus of “divorcing without court”!
The magic of ICP is that everybody, the parties and the team of professionals work together to create resolutions based on the interests and values of the couple parting ways. ICP is future-focused, constructive, pragmatic and respectful. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a fair share of robust and colourful conversation; there is. Full disclosure is still required and legal advice is imperative. But it is done in a safe, open and supported space.
It has always intrigued me that when we first fall in love and enter new relationships, we are filled with a plethora of emotions. However, when a relationship ends, we expect people to park their emotions and enter a legal process that has little regard for how they are feeling and what they truly want their future to look like. It’s time to wake up; change is upon us.
Divorce isn’t the end of a relationship, especially if there are children; it is simply a re-organisation of the family into a different unit. As professionals working in this fragile environment, it is our job to upskill and be open to truly assisting our clients. Courts should be the last card we draw from our toolkit.
As professionals working in the family law space, we are in prime position to educate our clients that divorce doesn’t have to be ugly and that, with the right team in place, with a different way of thinking, it can be the beginning of something healthy and positive. Let’s acknowledge our individual strengths and work together to change the landscape of family law.
Shelby Timmins is the director of Divorce Done Differently.