Friday, 29 November 2019

Why I love being a divorce lawyer

I once heard from a business associate that the whole point of life is that each of us exist to serve.  When I heard that statement, I thought: “Eureka!”.  That statement adapting to exactly why I help clients undergoing a divorce.

I have seen divorce or family lawyers like me lose their passion and become burnt out.  To put it bluntly, if you don’t like what you are doing, do something else. 

I like helping clients through a divorce because I want to make sure as far as I can that my clients can get up on their own feet and move forward.  There is nothing more pleasing to my soul to see someone who has been crushed during the process of a relationship breakup then blossom and grow with new life, having that vitality pumped back into them.

The lesson was given to me many years ago by a client who happened to phone up one Tuesday morning to thank me for my efforts (which had been 7 years before).  I told her that I was rather dissatisfied with the outcome.  Her perception and mine of what had occurred were completely different.  For me, I thought that there could have been a much better court outcome.  Her impression, however, was that my intervention had changed her life.  She said:

            “You changed my life.  Nobody believed in me, not even me.  Only one person believed in me, and that was you.”

My belief in my client and the justice of her cause meant that she was able to escape a very difficult relationship, obtain employment (despite having limited education), find love again – in a very happy, stable and secure relationship – and be loved by family and friends.

Somehow my actions in standing up for her and her rights had changed her life.

When I studied family law at university, I had no interest in it at all.  I considered that family law was akin to palm tree justice.  It had wobbly concepts and uncertain rules, full of discretion – unlike black letter law such as trusts, which have a storied legal tradition. 

To my surprise, shortly after commencing as a graduate in 1985, part of my workload immediately related to family law.  I soon realised the error of my ways.  I discovered that being a family lawyer – or as a divorce lawyer as most people know us – meant that I was helping real people with real problems.  Although as a former President of the Queensland Law Society and family lawyer once described it, family law is the most difficult area to practise in, it has in my view the greatest satisfaction.  Helping people get back on their own two feet so that they can look afresh at the world and look after their children and their finances is one of the most joyful jobs anyone could ever have.

I have been extremely lucky to serve clients over that time.  I decided to specialise in family law in 1988.  It has been my dominant area of practice since then. 

When the Queensland Law Society introduced Accreditation of Family Law Specialists in 1996, I was accepted as one of the first accredited specialists.  I have remained a Queensland Law Society Accredited Family Law Specialist since 1996.

For the last five years, I have been a Fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers, the most elite group of family lawyers in the world.  It truly says that I have peer recognition by my international and local peers for me to have been accepted as a Fellow.

I have been lucky as a family lawyer to write articles and undertake presentations concerning family law and divorce to other family lawyers and associated professionals such as social workers and psychologists. 

Despite the joy of writing and presenting, the true joy is to assist clients and help them get on their way after their relationship has broken down.  Helping give them that sense of purpose and getting them out of their mess as quickly as possible (and hopefully without going to court) gives me a keen sense of satisfaction that I have been lucky enough in my calling to serve others.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

So what is the point of the Kevin Andrews/Pauline Hanson inquiry?

Last week I had the privilege of moderating a seminar in Brisbane about the future of family law.  The keynote speakers were two authors of the recent Australian Law Reform Commission report into the family law system – President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Justice Sarah Derrington of the Federal Court, and retired Family Court judge Michelle May AM QC.  

Those keynote speakers were joined by Jo, a woman who had been subjected to domestic violence, experienced Independent Children’s Lawyer, solicitor and mediator Rob Grant, and barrister (and former solicitor, Adult Guardian and Family Court Registrar) Dianne Pendergast.

Justice Derrington made plain that the recommendation to have State Courts undertake family law has complications (including all the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court judges who have been appointed and have tenure until the age of 70 under the Constitution).  However, as she put it, the splitting of the family law system between child protection and domestic violence under the State systems and family law under the Federal system was a failure or, in her words: “was not fit for purpose”.  

The ALRC report is enormous.  It is comprehensive.  There are clear differences of opinion about some of the recommendations (as was set out by some of the comments from Rob Grant and Dianne Pendergast) but in broad terms it contains many common sense recommendations as to how to improve family law.

Her Honour went through in painstaking detail as to each of the terms of reference that was given to the Australian Law Reform Commission to undertake its report.  She also did a compare and contrast to set out each term of reference that the Kevin Andrews/Pauline Hanson family law inquiry was required to consider.  Every last term of reference was the same, save two:

  • The standard of evidence undertaken in State domestic violence proceedings.  As her Honour noted, this is a State matter and therefore outside the terms of the Federal ALRC terms of refence.

  • The interplay between the Family Law Act and the child support system.   

Given what her Honour described that these two facets were relatively minor, what is the point of the Parliamentary Committee report? The obvious answer is that some politicians may not like the answers in the ALRC report, and therefore seek to come up with a different outcome.  Her Honour detailed eight cases of several hundred ordinarily people who had gone through the family law system, voluntarily telling the ALRC of their story.  The eight cases were of women who had been subjected to domestic violence and, quite frankly, let down by their lawyers, police and the courts.  The stories they tell are sad and disgusting, in which issues of domestic violence are sidelined.  It seems as though the last 30 years of action to deal with domestic violence - at least in these cases- have somehow passed by the family law system.  One must wonder therefore that this failure to adequately deal with domestic violence in the family law system might in itself be one of the causes of such high rates of domestic violence now. After all, if there are no real consequences for perpetrators of domestic violence, they can keep continuing their bad behaviour- influencing their next partners and their children. 

Her Honour in undertaking the inquiry was assisted by many family law veterans.  Her Honour being a maritime lawyer looked at the family law system with fresh eyes.  In Australia we have no unitary court system where a single set of courts (with the partial exception of Western Australia) deal with domestic violence, child protection and family law – unlike our cousins across the Tasman in New Zealand.  

The sooner that our Governments bite the bullet and enable the one set of courts to deal with all the problems facing families, the better.  After all, then Justice Dessau recommended that course 30 years ago, but nothing has been done by Governments of both sides since then – except fiddling on the sidelines.  In Justice Derrington’s view, the sooner that there is fundamental reform of the system, the better. At the least, our children deserve that.