Lawyers and professionals working with separated families aim to support clients to achieve their goals in the most respectful and efficient way. Empowering them to be able to make their own decisions is the best outcome, but this is not always possible. In situations where court becomes the necessary last resort, this can be a daunting and formidable path.
As a separated party, there is much to cope with the physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and financial aspects. The adversarial process takes these challenges to another level, and can make it even more difficult for clients to cope with important court events.
Familiarity with the stages in the court process can make it more likely that as professionals we underestimate the degree of difficulty for a client to:
• Confront their former partner for the first time at the Court and be expected to negotiate important decisions;
• Attend a local Magistrates Court for the Application and granting of an Intervention Order, and be expected to present a background of controlling and coercive behavior that they would rather forget;
• Participate in interviews for preparation of a Family Report, to provide a positive and comprehensive description of the background, their concerns, proposals and focus on their children;
• Attend a court hearing and worry about giving evidence, being cross-examined, challenged, and questioned about matters that seem self evident and straightforward.
Litigation Support is a process that provides information, support and information to clients to deal with uncertainties and anxieties around attending these type of events. The aim is to provide a comfortable and safe environment that is confidential and neutral. This should promote good communication, exchange of information, and improved understanding about the purpose of the event ahead of them, and what is involved in this event. It should enable a discussion around how to prepare, what to expect from those involved, and what will be expected of them.
I have recently assisted clients who were facing consultations for preparation of Family Reports and their uncertainty around these sessions was causing considerable anxiety. Their legal practitioners were concerned that this anxiety would impact on their ability to fully participate in the interview and thereby their presentation and outcome. They came to see me to gain greater understanding as to the context for these sessions, the purpose and use of the Family Report, and how best to prepare.
Alison (I will call her) had been through the Family Court system some years previously. She had not presented well in the Family Report, and coupled with some mental health issues she had at the time, she did not achieve the parenting arrangements that she believed accurately reflected the best interests of her children. She had returned to court to increase her time with the children and was anxious about how to manage the Family Report process.
We spent an hour and a half talking about what she hoped for her children and why she was seeking an increase of time in her orders. We talked about her strengths and what the children would gain from these arrangements. We also talked about the issues that had been raised in the previous Family Report and how these were no longer relevant for the time that she spent with the children. We discussed concrete examples of activities and outings that she had spent with the children or hoped to in the future.
We also spoke about the benefits for the children from the time that they spent with their father-his strengths and what he had to offer them. We spoke about areas that she might see as lacking for children with the current arrangements and how these could be supplemented by the arrangement that she was proposing. We covered how their father might answer these questions about her strengths and any concerns he might have, and how these could be seen against the needs of the children in the future.
Finally we discussed the topic of communication, the importance of this for her ability to work with the father as co-parents, and the impact on the children if they could see their parents working together for their benefit. We talked about what information she would like to receive, and to pass on to the father, and what method would best suit the existing communication style and skills of both parents.
Most importantly we discussed her proposals and how they would work in practice. We looked at what had been happening, when they worked well and why, and when they had broken down and how this had been dealt with. Looking into the future, we explored what she was proposing, how this would impact on the children, what could happen to make it work well, and what she would do if it broke down. We also spoke about what the father’s reaction to this might be, and why he might have these views. We discussed his proposals, how these might benefit and the children, and how they might not be optimal for them at this time.
Alison was given some tasks to focus on in preparation for her consultation with the Family Consultant. These involved listing her strengths, what she in particular had to offer her children, and her view of the best way the children could benefit from these strengths. She also had to list the father’s strengths and what the children gained from their time with him. Alison struggled with this, and we discussed how important it would be for the children to know that each parent could appreciate the importance of them spending time with the other. To convince her children of this, she had to believe that there were some benefits for the children to be with their father, and these would be something the Family Report Writer would be interested in.
Alison left feeling much more confident about how to prepare and manage the consultation. I spoke with her the day before and the day after, and she felt that she had done everything that she could to present the aspects of the parenting that were important to her.
I have seen another client recently (I will call him Don) who was also facing a Family Report in a situation where he had been told by his lawyer of the importance of the Family Report in relation to the upcoming interim hearing, and was very keen to do whatever he could to understand the process and prepare as well as possible.
This was the first time that Don was dealing with the legal process, and he was feeling very restricted in relation to his role in his children’s lives. He was keen to expand this, and wanted to change the previous focus of defending himself against allegations that he saw as unfounded and distracting, and return the focus to the children and what was best for them.
I provided Don with some resources to read prior to our session and we spoke about some of the relevant social science around the impact of separation on children, the impact on children of conflict, and attachment theory. We talked about age appropriate arrangements and the principles underlying the family Law Act, of the children’s rights to have a meaningful relationship with both parents and other important people in their lives, and to be safe, comfortable and secure at all times.
I encouraged Don to consider the reasons the children’s mother might have to restrict his time with the children, and the assurances that he could offer around these. We looked at alternate interpretations of her behavior, and considered various strategies to support his relationship with the children taking these into account. We explored his proposals for co-parenting the children and how to convey his goals for the children in a way that was respectful of these alternate views and concerns that the Mother may have.
These are two examples of recent situations where Litigation Support was used to support the client with important court events, and I was able to work with the lawyer to provide the best possible service and improve the client’s experience of the court process. If you would like to discuss how this might assist one of your clients please contact Creative Family Law Solutions.