Despite some positive legal developments stemming from the pandemic, the health crisis has had devastating effects on many Australian families, including those in Ballarat, leading to pressure on the legal system.
Ballarat solicitor Tom Sullivan believes the impact of COVID on families has been immense.
"(The pandemic) has put a blowtorch on families," Mr Sullivan said.
"The family dynamics changed with working from home. The challenges of home schooling created great strain. People have lost their jobs; financial pressure is the number one cause of separation.
"Families have lost a lot of outlets that make relationships work. For example, young families, with the father who's the footy coach, spending time at the footy club with the kids."
Of great concern has been increased rates of domestic violence. Mr Sullivan, who heads up firm Curwen Walker, has noticed this phenomenon.
"The statistics of family violence have gone up and, specifically, in Ballarat," Mr Sullivan said.
"Historically, Ballarat has had a significant amount of family violence compared to other regional areas. From my experience, there is more family violence than previously."
Another Ballarat lawyer, Ashleigh Ellen of Nevetts Lawyers, is aware of the ongoing menace of domestic violence.
"Family violence is always prevalent, pandemic or not," Ms Ellen said.
"However, I appreciate that lockdowns may increase conflict between parties."
As a result of increased pressures on the home front, some differences between partners have become irreconcilable. Legal assistance has subsequently been sought to gain resolution.
"I've definitely seen (an increase in family law disputes)," Mr Sullivan said.
"The number of cases has grown significantly. When I speak to colleagues, the demand for advice is a lot higher than it has been."
Mr Sullivan has also observed a correlation between certain time periods and demand on legal services.
"There's significant peaks and troughs of when we're required to give advice," Mr Sullivan said.
"A lot of that is after school holidays. It's (also) increased after lockdowns have ended."
Law Council of Australia president Dr Jacoba Brasch asserts utilising mediation remains the preferred dispute resolution method, regardless of what is occurring in society.
"The overwhelming majority of separating couples is able to resolve their financial and/or parenting arrangements without resort to court," Dr Brasch said.
"Lawyers are focused upon finding early and effective settlements."
Mr Sullivan is also committed to mediation.
"A high percentage of cases settle at mediation; that's over 90 per cent," Mr Sullivan said.
"Trial dates historically being one or two years away, people dig in their heels at the start, but with the natural attrition of litigation, they settle. The commercial reality hits home."
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When mediation is ineffective or not possible, matters proceed to the institution of last resort, court. Statistics reveal there has been a rise in family law disputes coming before court over the last two years.
In April 2020, the Family Court reported, over the previous month, there had been a 39 per cent increase in urgent applications filed in the Family Court and a 23 per cent increase in the Federal Circuit Court. In addition, the Family Court received in excess of 21,000 applications in 2019/2020, the most applications the court had received in the past five financial years.
The 2020/2021 Family Court annual report outlined 22,331 applications, and 392 appeals, had been filed. Even the number of the court's Twitter followers had increased to 5,426, an increase of 412.
Despite the demands on family law services and courts growing, there have been beneficial advancements across the last two years. Technology has come to the forefront of the law's operation, according to Dr Brasch.
"Responding to the onset of the pandemic meant having to pivot from the traditional delivery of legal services," Dr Brasch said.
"Family law firms had to assess ways to ensure the safety of their staff and clients, while moving to find ways to offer continuity of service to clients."
Mr Sullivan's practice has undoubtedly adapted.
"We've very much been a firm where we prefer to have the clients in face-to-face meetings, (but) our approach has changed," Mr Sullivan said.
"All our mediations are online."
Online court hearings have also unfolded because of COVID-19.
"The whole profession had to move to online court," Mr Sullivan said.
"There was (initially) a reluctance. We all thought in-court litigation was the way to do it. The whole profession had to adapt."
There have been difficulties with the utilisation of electronic communication, but many practitioners feel technological change has been advantageous.
"You are dealing with highly emotive issues," Mr Sullivan said.
"If it's property, parenting cases, or both, it's highly emotionally-charged. The humanity of dealing with it one-on-one, on that level with the client, providing that emotional support on top of the legal advice, is challenging when it's on a phone call.
"(However) I've found, in my practice, it's more efficient. With online court, the efficiencies are there (too). It actually makes sense for people in Ballarat to attend court hearings online instead of travelling."
A spokesperson for the Law Council of Australia supported Mr Sullivan's sentiments.
"In some instances, online hearings may have provided greater options for access to justice," the spokesperson said.
Ms Ellen agrees as to the strengths of technology, although she acknowledges being present in person is ideal on occasions.
"In some respects, not having to attend court is a benefit to clients. It is less stressful and less time-consuming to attend our office or attend via video link.
"In other matters, I believe it would be beneficial for parties to be present in court, being able to look the magistrate or registrar in the eye.
"There is something about the enormity of a courtroom that cannot be replicated via a computer screen. I do not have statistics to prove it, but do wonder if compliance with court orders has declined due to this."
Dr Brasch recognises much good work has been done at the court level in the face of unprecedented difficulties.
"The response of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia (now the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia) has been swift, with an ongoing focus on balancing public health and safety concerns against the continued provision of essential services to Australian families," Dr Brasch said.
"The court's agility ensured families in crisis were still able to have their matters progressed at court and that services remained available.
"The establishment of the COVID-19 List to deal with any urgent applications filed as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those involving family violence, is a good example of this responsiveness."
Opinion remains divided within the legal fraternity on the recent merger of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court.
Mr Sullivan is enthusiastic about the development.
"I'm excited," he said.
"They have resourced it in that they have put in new registrars. The power of judicial registrars to hear interim matters and the push for mediation are positives. They've got expertise in these areas.
"The only criticism I have is we haven't seen the increase in family report writers and court-appointed psychologists. We need more of them."
Ms Allen feels the merger of the courts could reduce delays.
"That is certainly the hope," she said.
"Practitioners have been provided a timeline of events which intends to set down the first court hearing with 1 to 2 months and a final hearing within 12 months. This provides a general timeframe for the clients which was not possible in the old system.
"(This) assists (clients) in providing instructions as to how they wish to proceed with their matter."
That said, Dr Brasch is more reserved.
"The Law Council raised concerns with the decision to merge the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court, citing the potential for delays to be exacerbated," Dr Brasch said.
The University of Notre Dame Australia's Associate Professor Camilla Nelson is far from enamoured about the merger.
"The merger does not change anything very much at all," Associate Professor Nelson said.
"It simply gives formal recognition to a de facto reality that has emerged over the last 20 years whereby the Federal Circuit Court has taken on 90 per cent of family law cases.
"The court has created a new website, put out a few fancy informational videos, and given the same old unworkable processes new names, but these changes are largely semantic.
As far as Associate Professor Nelson is concerned, the problems with the family law system are ingrained.
"The adversarial system is the wrong system to use if what you really want to do is to resolve family problems," she said.
"The adversarial system escalates conflict. Survivors voices are not heard; children's voices are not heard. The only perspective you hear is the perspective of lawyers."
There is also the issue of extensive costs, making justice inaccessible for many.
"The cost of legal representation is out of reach for the majority of Australian families," Associate Professor Nelson said.
"In 40 per cent of family law matters, one or both parties will be self-represented, but what we have is a system that is made to suit the needs of lawyers, not the needs of families."
Experts hold the strong opinion ongoing reform is vital.
Dr Brasch is appreciative of funding being allocated to the family law system in the 2021-2022 federal budget, noting $123.8 million is to be allocated over four years, but she believes additional resourcing is still required.
Associate Professor Nelson concurs.
"Funding for family and relationship services, domestic abusive services, and children's services is important, but funding alone will not bring about meaningful change," she said.
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