Separation is a time of chaos for the families that approach us for professional assistance. They seek understanding, information and a clear pathway through this chaos to a place of greater certainty and peace.
At this point, a family may need time, therapy and emotional support in order to be able to grapple with the decisions ahead of them. Ultimately, when they are ready, they will need to make decisions arising from the breakdown of their relationship, and in a very small proportion, some will need to have a decision imposed upon them.
When the right time arrives for each family to consider the consequences of separation, the family needs to be encouraged to focus on their strengths, to broaden as much as possible the options to be considered, and to be empowered to retain the ability to make their own decisions.
This is in stark contrast to the generally accepted approach of family lawyers, who are mindful of the consequences should the matter go to court, and look through the lens of the problems and difficulties that have already arisen, narrow the situation down to the legal issues and a limited range of options, and tend to want to take over responsibility for the decisions to be made.
This may be an acceptable approach for the 7 % of applications that end up proceeding to a defended trial, but as Annemarie Rice pointed out at the recent AFCC conference, it is a missed opportunity for most families. Annemarie described how the legalistic lens requires an exploration of the legal issues and the factors that would be relevant to a judicial determination. This avoids the non-legal issues that are considered just as vital for resolution by the family, and generally results in a superficial understanding that scratches the surface rather than delving into the underlying issues. This is very likely to exacerbate the difficulties experienced by the family and more importantly put children’s functioning and well being at risk.
In the decades since I began my work as a family lawyer, my role has changed dramatically. I have found an approach that enhances my ability to connect with other people, to work with them to understand what is happening on the legal and non-legal levels, to enable them to obtain the supports and information they need to make good decisions, and to empower them to choose the best way to make those decisions that need to be made at that time.
Personally this gives me great satisfaction, and allows me to take pride in the work that I do. I have naturally gravitated towards other professionals who also like to work in this way, and these professional relationships are crucial to the way I work. I am proud to be a family lawyer and have the opportunity to work respectfully with others. I envisage a world where we all search for and connect with the humanity inside others, even those in the place of chaos in the midst of separation.