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  • Lawyers or kids? It's easy
  • By Bettina Arndt
  • Herald Sun
  • 14/10/2005 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 47 articles in 2005 )
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Warning, Mr Howard. There's a red light flashing. Your vital new Family Law initiative looks set to derail.

There's a very real risk the cool $189 million you were proposing to spend on Family Relationship Centres will be money wasted.

The sure sign that something is going astray is the relaxed state of our family lawyers. They don't see the FRCs as any threat to their business. And they should.

These centres were designed to satisfy parliamentarians seeking reform to the way our Family Court system handles divorces involving children.

The parliamentary committee on child custody concluded the current adversarial system was a disaster for children.

But the Government wasn't convinced that their proposal, a tribunal system, would make the difference.

Instead, Howard backed Sydney University law professor Patrick Parkinson's idea of requiring parents to resolve their issues using child-centred mediation at the FRCs.

The whole idea was these centres would be the end point, the place where parents actually sorted out their business, not a mere road bump on the way to lawyers and the Family Court.

That message has simply gone missing from the reams of waffle being produced by the Attorney-General's department about the FRCs.

The lawyers have sniffed the wind and are now seeing the FRC at worst as a minor inconvenience or perhaps even as a source of increased business.

The problem is the AG's department doesn't get it. The latest information paper on the AG website says the FRCs will provide information, education, referral and a free three-hour "joint session" to talk about parenting plans.

Hello! It sounds just like a rehash of many of the education and counselling services on offer at the Family Court before the big squeeze on their funding.

That's why many of the men's groups are up in arms, seeing the new services as adding nothing to approaches that failed divorced families in the past.

There's nothing in this document to suggest the centres are the place where the real work must be done. The place where decisions about children must be made - rather than lawyers' offices and the Family Court.

The original concept was if people insisted on going to court with children's matters, they would simply be referred back to the experts at FRCs.

The centres were supposed to be staffed by people skilled to perform the tortuously difficult child-focused mediation that helps warring parents concentrate on children's needs.

This type of mediation is different from the lawyer-led horse-trading offered by some mediation and dispute resolution services.

It offers something new -- an approach that has been shown to work even with extremely hostile parents who have spent years fighting over their children in the Family Court.

It's fine if the Government can afford to offer only the first three hours of this mediation free. But the message Mr Ruddock needs to be promoting is FRCs are the end of the line and parents must persist in child-focused mediation, even if they have to pay for it because the alternative, lawyers and the Family Court, simply doesn't work for children.

Surprise, surprise, his lawyer-filled department is ducking the issue because they don't want to frighten the horses.

The AG's department is playing to its legal constituency - one very good reason implementation of the FRCs should be handed over to the Department of Family and Community Services, which better understands the sensitive work that is at the heart of this great new plan.

This doesn't mean the Family Court will be totally out of business - lawyers and judges will always be needed to sort out complex property matters.

The AG's department is proposing families with a history of violence should also be referred straight to the court.

That's a joke, considering the hash the court makes of many of these cases. Child-focused mediation is a far better option even in violent families.

There are worrying signs the FRC's agenda has been captured by pro-marriage lobbyists who want the centres to prop up marriage. Recent news stories about the centres were all about support for strained marriages - a laudable goal but with the Government already committed to spending $80 million a year on other marriage education and relationship support services, this shouldn't be the main game for FRCs.

What the centres are supposed to be about is planning separation and post-divorce parenting, with parents able to return whenever new issues arise.

Key players are very nervous that the AG's department has lost the plot on this important new initiative - with some of our most experienced mediation services considering opting out of the tender process and parliamentarians now threatening to renew their push for the tribunal.

It's time for a rethink, Mr Howard - before it is too late.


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