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  • Community based counselling and mediation in Family Court cases (cont)
  • By Presenter: Susanna Lobez
  • The Law Report - ABC TV
    Page 3
  • 25/11/1997 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 14 articles in 2001 )
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Voula: They're very poor, and still continue to fight. It never seems to end, the legal stuff never seems to go away, because if one partner feels they've been badly done by, it's just a continuing process. Whereas with us, we found we arrived at these solutions and well look, things may change in the years to come, but at the moment it's what we agree to, not what Mediation Australia said or what the Family Law Court judge said, it's what we said we wanted to do, and mediation helped us sift through the whole process. The difference is that when there are children involved, you have to do it that way. I guess, no, there are many people I know who haven't done it that way, even though there are children involved, but for us it was important that we were fair because ultimately the children are the losers. I mean what's the point in spending $20,000 in legal costs to prove that you're the one who should have had the largest share, that's $20,000 less for your children, and that's the way I look at it. And that was what was really important to me.

Damien Carrick: So you saved a lot of money doing it this way.

Voula: And a lot of angst as well, yes.

Peter: It was a real quick system in our case. It resolved a lot of issues quickly, and honestly because it was face-to-face rather than the wheeling and dealings behind closed doors, the legal advice, going through the technicalities.

Damien Carrick: What are the actual costs involved in mediation?

Peter: I think again it depends on the amount of sessions one goes to. In our particular case, if I can quote the dollars and cents, it was approximately $300 to $400 each.

Voula: Which is very, very cheap and, yes, it's good. I mean we were also advised to seek independent legal advice and we both did that, and I went through a community legal centre, that cost me nothing. So in effect our whole separation's probably cost us $400.

Damien Carrick: And the legal advice that you received from the Community Legal Service and from the private practitioner, it sort of said, 'Yes, go with this system'?

Peter: Well the advice that I received was that yes, it was basically based on the decision that we both make, and if mediation is a system that worked for us, then go for it.

Voula: It's not what you said to me: you said that the solicitor was flabbergasted at what the agreement was going to be, and thought you were being badly done by.

Peter: Can we cut that section out?

Voula: No you don't cut that section.

Damien Carrick: Can I ask do you both have legal advisers now?

Voula: No, I don't, because I don't need one. I'm my own legal adviser. It's user-friendly, yes, that's the best way I can put it, and it's just nice to have people who you know are not out there for, they're not actually looking for your dollars. They're objective and impassive.

Susanna Lobez: Peter and Voula, successful do-it-yourselfers.


So in Australia, the Family Law consumer has several different options. In the United States, he or she has even more.

Busy Pittsburgh family lawyer, and lateral thinker, Ronni Burrows, employs psychologist Sharon Saul as Legal Therapist Counsellor to deal with the emotional needs of her family law clients.

Ronni Burrows: The first service is that basically Sharon will also go through a kind of mini assessment. It's not a psychological assessment, but it is an assessment to find out what their support system is. One of the first questions we ask if you've ever been in a court before, and at that point she explains to them that she is available to educate them about the court practice, and before a hearing, she will actually go with the client to the courtroom, and they explain to them where they have to sit, where they'll be called up to the table etc., so it doesn't seem as frightening.

Damien Carrick: Do the legal therapist counsellors also advise the client on how to deal with the grief associated with divorce, with a custody battle over children, and with a property dispute?

Ronni Burrows: Well there's no easy answer to that. What we offer is not a substitute for private mental health professionals. What we found in the beginning of any divorce is that the client calls the attorney constantly and mostly in the guise of calling for legal questions, when it really is an emotional question that they're asking. So the legal therapist counsellor actually I will refer the client and say, 'Wait a minute, this is not a legal question, this is something that you need Sharon's help' and it may be something in the sense of a 'He said', 'She said', 'He came a half hour late to pick up the kids' or 'He said something nasty to me about my parenting'. So these are the kind of issues that the legal therapist counsellor will deal with. But as far as someone going into a depression, or someone not knowing what to do with their life following the divorce, this is definitely outside the scope of the legal therapist counsellor.

Damien Carrick: So the idea is to separate the emotional needs of the client from the strict legal needs of the client?

Ronni Burrows: Exactly.

Damien Carrick: And does that free up a lot more time for you to focus on their legal needs, if you don't have to worry about their emotional needs?

Ronni Burrows: Well it's interesting. Since we've started the program, not only do I not get the weekend and late night phone calls except in dire emergencies, and I won't say there aren't emergencies, there are. But even the frantic calls to Sharon have been cut back, my legal therapist counsellor, because she's kind of pre-educated them as to what to expect, and it's a preventive kind of program.

Damien Carrick: Is the service offered to all clients automatically, or do you make an assessment about their ability to pay for the particular service, and maybe an assessment about their need for the particular service?

Ronni Burrows: Well certain lawyers obviously do it differently than I do. I have chosen to include my legal therapist counselling services in my hourly charge, so that it is available to all clients. Other lawyers have taken the stand that 'I don't think this is for every client, I don't want my clients' and I often hear this from lawyers who are very involved with corporate executives, 'I don't want them to think that I think that they're crazy, so I just explain the services and I don't tell them it's mandatory.' And so in that case, they would charge a separate retainer, if you will, for the legal therapist counsellor.

Other lawyers have made it optional and then just charge an hourly fee for the legal therapist counsellor's services. So there are various ways.

Damien Carrick: Just to clarify: do the legal therapist counsellors only deal with the individual problems of your client, or do they attempt to explore the group dynamic of the family?

Ronni Burrows: 90% of all the legal therapist counsellors advice, and I will say basically practical advice to get on with someone's life, is geared towards the client. Obviously there are times when the client will say, 'John came home from school today and the kids were giving him a hard time' at which juncture the legal therapist counsellor would then volunteer maybe three or four names of a good child psychiatrist, child psychologist, it the need would arise. As a family lawyer here in the United States, I would say maybe 1% of my cases do I ever meet the children of clients, that's just not something that I believe in, and I know there are lawyers who will also talk to the children involved, but that's just not been something that I feel comfortable doing. But they never get involved with the other spouse.

Damien Carrick: Right. So there's never any attempt to mediate or have counselling for both parties together?

Ronni Burrows: Definitely not. And interestingly enough, we had one psychiatrist who went through the program to become a legal therapist counsellor and when it came time for her to go through the internship at a deposition, which is where both parties are giving testimony under oath, she felt that she wanted to intervene and make both parties feel better, at which time the lawyer said, 'Take a hike'. She was thrown out of the program. So we don't try to make it good for both sides, we are only concerned with the lawyer's client, and that's very difficult for some mental health professionals, to kind of make that crossover. They're not trying to make it better for everybody.

Susanna Lobez: Pittsburgh Ronni Burrows, talking with Damien Carrick who wishes he had a legal therapist counsellor down at the St Kilda free legal centre.

Thanks for joining me for this week's Law Report. Thanks to Carey Dell and Damien Carrick.

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