The vast majority of Family Lawyers will do everything they can to keep their client’s out of Court and try to settle the cases they run amicably (if possible) and as early on as possible to reduce legal costs. 

A good lawyer achieves this through making sure their clients are well advised as to the range of potential outcomes, has identified issues that may affect the range of outcomes, has worked to resolve information disputes by obtaining valuations and disclosure and provided their client with as accurate as possible costs estimates. This information allows a client to make an informed assessment of risk and weigh the cost/benefit of settling early.

Early settlements are also achieved by maintaining a respectful and non-confrontational communication style with the lawyer representing the other party or self-represented litigant. Third parties such as mediators are also of enormous assistance in resolving disputes at the early stages.

However, despite the best efforts of lawyers and parties sometimes it is necessary to file a proceeding in Court in order to move it forward or resolve a dispute that is intractable. 

To be frank, in any civilised society there is only two options to resolve a dispute, and they are by an agreement reached between the parties or by a Court making an order. 

What does it mean to go to Court?

For Family Law disputes there are three Courts that most often exercise the jurisdiction conferred by the Family Law Act 1975. These are:

  • State Magistrates Court exercising jurisdiction under the Family Law Act 1975. It is not often that a Family Law proceeding would be filed in a State Magistrates Court. Typically, a State Magistrate Court would only be involved to make a “Consent Order” and not hear a disputed matter.
  • The Family Court which is the “higher Court” exercising jurisdiction under the Family Law Act 1975. The Family Court typically hears matters that are more complex such as complex property matters, matters where serious allegation of risk towards children are made and other particular matters such as adoption or disputed medical procedures for children.
  • The Federal Circuit Court is the “workhorse” Court in Family Law matters. This Court is likely where your matter will be commenced, and this Court handles the majority of the “usual” property and parenting disputes.

Many people think that once their matter “goes to Court” it will be heard by the Judge at the first date and resolved. This is not the case. Once a matter is filed in Court a process commences that may take many Court appearances before a resolution can occur.

Why are there numerous Court appearance before a Judge can make a decision?

This is necessary because the reality is matters in dispute are numerous, Judges are few and Court time is expensive for the taxpayer. 

Once a matter is started in Court by filing an Application, the basic process is for the Court to make directions for evidence to be gathered before a “hearing” can occur and for the parties to make further attempts at negotiation or mediation.

The Court process is formal and must be fair to both parties so there are rules that must apply to how the matter is conducted and how the Court receives evidence. Thus, Court appearances have different designations as to what is to occur on a particular day. Again, agreements between the parties are encouraged and almost any agreement can be made, and the matter finalised, regardless of what the purpose of the day is.

The types of Court days are:

  • Mention or Directions – A “mention” is a Court date when the Judge will be informed as to what the matter is about, what the issues are, and what “directions” may need to be made for the collection of evidence or further Court dates. The first date after the Application and Response is filed is usually a mention unless there is some urgency to making an “interim” decision. In the vast majority of cases interim orders for children and what needs to occur by way of directions will be negotiated and agreed at the first Court date. 
  • Interim Application – This is a Court date when the Court must make a decision on a particular issue before the main hearing. Interim hearings are a short process of up to 2 hours duration only. This would occur for example where the interim parenting orders could not be agreed or in a property matter where assets needed to be protected, a party wanted to exclude another party from living at the home or a party needed maintenance or access to some funds. An interim hearing is conducted by affidavits without cross examination and therefore the Court cannot determine any disputed facts. 
  • Callover – This is when the Court will allocate a trial date if the matter is ready to proceed. Trial time is valuable so before allocating this time to a matter the Judge will want to know how many witnesses, how long the matter might take, whether any issues have been resolved etc.
  • Trial – This is likely the last Court date. A trial is where the parties are cross examined on their affidavit, lawyers make submissions and the Judge will make “finding of fact”. This means that after hearing the evidence the Judge will determine what evidence is found to be true. The Judge will then apply the relevant law to those facts.

There are other Court dates that can occur such as “Conciliation Conference” which are similar to mediation or Appeals if a party believes a Judge made an error. 

The good news is that most matters don’t make it all the way to a trial. Most matters settle at some point along the way once the benefit of further evidence is obtained, the Judge may focus attention on a particular issue, costs increase and as other issues are resolved creating motivation for closure.

What should you do when you’re in Court?

The Judge sitting in Court represents the authority of the State to determine a dispute. 

The origin of which date back to the early Norman Kings in England (who had the “divine right of Kings” i.e. said to be appointed by God) and allowed subjects to come before the King to determine disputes. This had a stabilising influence on society by establishing a “rule of law”. I said earlier there are two ways to determine a dispute in a “civilised” society i.e. an agreement or an order from the Court. Without the Court there would be agreements …or whoever was able to use force to get what they want. 

Thus, the Courts are imperative to maintaining a civilised society and it is very important the authority of the Court is respected.

Respect for the Court today means that while you’re in Court:

  • Bow to the Judge if the Judge is sitting at the bench when you enter or leave the Court room.
  • Do not wear any hat or have sunglasses on your head. Dress appropriately. You don’t have to wear a suit or tie if you’re not a lawyer but dressing appropriately communicates to the Court you respect the process you’re involved in. 
  • If you are speaking to the Judge the proper address is “your Honour”.
  • Do not speak to the person next to you in the gallery unless it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes lawyers will whisper to each other with last minute negotiations before their matter is called but this ought to be avoided. The Judge is focused on the matter before them and typically they don’t appreciate being distracted. 
  • Often when you are in Court and supporting a friend, or if it is your matter, you will hear something you don’t like or don’t agree with. In this situation keep your poker face. Don’t smile, roll your eyes, stare at someone, shake your head etc. Don’t be argumentative or rude – especially with the Judge.
  • If you’re self-represented or addressed by the Judge directly focus on listening and not on speaking. It is natural that you’ll want to tell the Judge all of your concerns however this is rarely appropriate unless you’re making submissions at a trial or interim hearing. More often than not this goes badly for the person speaking. The Judge might want specific information so to give that information and don’t try to qualify it or give context. There will be time for that later. The same applies if you’re being cross examined. It’s an exercise in listening and not speaking. Cross examination is where the other party is scoring their points. Your points are in your affidavit so just answer the questions as honestly and succinctly as possible, and if you don’t understand ask the question be repeated and/or say if you don’t understand.

There are fewer physical appearances while Covid 19 is upon us but the same rules apply if you’re appearing by video or phone.

Going to Court is stressful, especially if you find yourself in a trial. It is also expensive and time consuming and it is much preferred that a negotiated settlement can be reached. Before deciding to go to Court you should have a good reason why. You should know what the impediment to settlement is, what will the costs be financially and emotionally, and you need to have confidence in your Family Lawyer providing the advice you are relying on to make these decisions.

Family law advice

If you have any queries in relation to separation, divorce, de facto relationships, property settlement or child support payments, my firm Hooper Family Lawyers can assist you with practical advice. 

We are family lawyers servicing all areas in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast.

It’s not unusual in many areas of law to apply time limits to the performance of a task or making a claim. Typically, time limits are something that lawyers are very mindful of when first meeting with, and advising a client, because if time limits are missed, the family lawyer could potentially be liable if a client suffers loss.

Sometimes “timing” is important to a client as well. I have often been asked “should I wait to do my divorce before I finalise property settlement?” or with respect to relocating children “should I wait before going to Court”? These types of situations fall into the strategy of a case and there are many more examples where timing is important for a satisfactory outcome.

The following are some (not all) of the important references to time that occur when you’re involved in a Family Law matter.

Divorce

Since 1975 there has only been one ground for Divorce in Australia. That is “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage”. This is evidenced by a 12-month continuous period of separation. However, to promote the opportunity for reconciliation, married couples can get back together for up to 3 months without “resetting the clock”.

For example, if I’m separated for 3 months and get back together for up to another 3 months and then separate again, the first 3 months is counted as part of the 12-month continuous period of separation. If I get back with my husband or wife for 4 months though, the 12 months would need to start again. 

Also, if I’m only married for 2 years there is an additional requirement for a “counselling certificate” and counselling before the Divorce can be filed. Again, this is designed to “give love a second chance” and see whether the marriage can be saved. 

Limitation periods for property claims

There are restrictions on when a claim for property settlement can be brought which are slightly different for married or de facto relationship couples. Lawyers call these time limits “Limitation Periods”.

The time limits are:

  • For married couples within 1 year of the date of a Divorce.
  • For de facto couples within 2 years of separation. 

For married couples the time limit will not commence until a Divorce occurs. Many people think of the Divorce as covering all of the property and children’s issues however this is not the case. 

A Divorce is only the termination of the marriage. People can resolve parenting issues and property settlement without ever being Divorced. Conversely, people can be Divorced and not resolve property issues.

There are some cases where people have waited long periods of time, haven’t been Divorced and seek property settlement (some more than 20 years after separation). This is not advisable as it introduces much complexity into the issues to be resolved. Without delving too far into issues of “contributions”, contributions have a different character post separation and long period of separate economic activity can be difficult to assess. In some cases, Courts have determined that after such a long period it may be no longer “just and equitable” to adjust property interests, which is a requirement of the power of the Court to Order a property settlement.

Most married people make the property settlement a priority before the Divorce and in my view this is sensible. There is no danger of the Limitation Period expiring and it makes the process simpler. In my experience complexity in legal matters typically means higher costs.

For de facto couples since 2009 (in most states) they enjoy the same processes as married couples, and the substantiative law is largely the same. However, not so regarding the Limitation Period. While married couple have 1 year it operates from the date they obtain a Divorce. De facto couples have 2 years but this time starts running from the date they separate.

In practical terms a looming Limitation Period means to protect it from expiring a Court Application must be made. Most people don’t want to go to Court and would prefer to negotiate a settlement so making sure there is sufficient time is important. Going to Court doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate a resolution, but it adds to stress and costs.

What if the Limitation Period does expire?

If the Limitation Period does expire it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t proceed with a claim. 

However before making the claim the other party would need to consent to it proceeding or permission of the Court (known as leave of the Court), would need to be obtained.

Leave of the Court will be granted if the Applicant can successfully establish “hardship” to a party or a child.

There are numerous cases with respect to hardship, some of the main points are as follows:

  • Hardship is akin to hardness, severity, privation, that which is hard to bear or a substantial detriment (Whitford [1979] FamCA 3).
  • Weight ought to be given to the intention of the limitation periods (Whitford [1979] FamCA 3).
  • Matters such as the length of the delay, reasons for the delay, prejudice to the respondent occasioned by the delay, the strength of the applicant’s case and the degree of hardship… are to be give weight. (Sharp [2011] FamCAF 150 citing Whitford).
  • The application ought to have a prima facie case worth pursuing not the mere loss of a cause of action. (Sharp [2011] FamCAF 150).
  • “Prejudice” to the respondent includes where a party is faced with a cause of action, he or she had no reason to expect or had been led to believe would not be brought.” (Frost & Nicholson [1981] FamCA 45).

If the other party requires the Applicant to obtain leave apart from the risk of the Court denying the Application, costs will be significantly increased.

The moral of the story is (in my opinion) there is no substitute for early advice from a specialist family lawyer for advice, including with respect to issues such as timing.

Other Family Law time considerations

Your family lawyer will be able to advise you with respect to timing issues from time under the Federal Circuit Court Rules 2001 or Family Law Rules 2004 to take certain steps, or the need to respond to a time limit imposed by a family law solicitor acting for your ex-partner. 

Being experienced lawyers, we know the tactical considerations that ought to be borne in mind. With parenting matters this can be critical to your case because a change in a child’s circumstances can be material to the outcome.

The bottom-line is don’t procrastinate, be proactive and find out where you stand early following separation.

Family law advice

If you have any queries in relation to separation, divorce, de facto relationships, property settlement or child support payments, my firm Hooper Family Lawyers can assist you with practical advice. 

We are family lawyers servicing all areas in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast.

Why a family lawyer is necessary?

Once the dust settles from the immediate emotional aspects of a separation, for many people thoughts will turn towards how and what is the best course of action to facilitate a swift, clean and lest costly relationship breakup.

From a myriad of concerns, things such as financial support and obligations, entitlement to a property settlement, child custody and child support often feature prominently in terms of the information people require.

What can also be complicating for people is misinformation. Misinformation can come from well-intentioned family and friends reciting “back yard barbeque advice” and anecdotes about a guy they know who had a divorce, through to the large quantity of information available on the internet, often lacking context, explanation and/or completeness.

The reality is the family law in Australia is incredibly complex and nuanced. Nuanced in that remedies are often discretionary and subject to legislative requirements that have only been defined by a significant body of case law. Judges for the most part have their own style of conducting their Court and hearings.

All of this means that it is incredibly important for people experiencing a separation to obtain advice from a lawyer that is both experienced and knowledgeable in the family law system.

Bad advice and bad decisions early on can go a long way towards making separation more painful, drawn out and expensive.

First family law appointment

The first appointment or initial attendance is very important for most clients. Typically, clients will have many questions, they will be anxious about their financial future or parenting after separation; and they may be struggling with emotional aspects of the separation. If they haven’t dealt with lawyers before this may also be a source of stress.

While information and guidance is important, it is also important for the client to get a feel for their lawyer as a person, and determine whether they have confidence in the lawyer and can develop a rapport.

An essential skill for a good family lawyer is the ability to listen to a client. Listening is more than just recording the client’s story. It is about picking up on the subtext and non-verbal cues that allow the lawyer to understand their client and their client’s case. Asking the right questions of a client is also important for the lawyer in gathering information. If the lawyer doesn’t understand your case, they cannot properly advise you or advocate for it in Court.

Once a client has explained their situation and needs, the lawyer can provide information and guidance. As well as information regarding the relevant law and procedure from a theoretical and practical perspective, information also covers:

  • Other services that may be required such reconciliation counselling, accounting and financial advice, mortgage brokers, family violence services, parenting courses, mediators etc;
  • Strategy both long and short term to best manage the pathway to resolving the matter as swiftly and cost effectively as possible. This can include mediation where relevant or going to court, what to expect at court or representation in court;
  • Guidance with respect to dealing with an ex-partner such as managing behaviour and how to respond to the difficult ex-partner;
  • The importance and nature of evidence as it is used in negotiations or within the formal court environment;
  • Your responsibilities under the law including as a separated parent and to make full and frank disclosure of financial matters;
  • How to manage your legal costs and avoid excessive legal fees.

I consider the initial attendance sufficiently important that Hooper Family Lawyers does two things that many other family lawyers don’t do.

Firstly, we don’t put a limit on the time we spend with a person at the initial attendance. We consider that the above is sufficiently important to warrant spending as much time as is necessary to ensure the lawyer has a complete understanding of the client’s needs; and the client has their questions answered; and understands the lawyer’s advice and recommendations.

Secondly, we don’t time cost for an initial attendance. We charge fixed fee ensuring people do not feel rushed by time costing.

One of the most rewarding moments for me as a family lawyer is the feedback I get at the conclusion of an initial attendance. The most common response is “I feel so much better now”. It’s not just the words, but the change in demeanour and expression from when a person walks into the office, to when they are walking out with clear short- and long-term guidance.

What do I need to do or bring if I want to see a family lawyer?

A phone call or email and a booking is the first step.

If you can bring information regarding relevant dates such as birthdays, de facto cohabitation or marriage dates, separation dates etc this is helpful. In property matters it is also helpful if you can provide a list of what you and your partner or ex-partner own and owe (including superannuation or other interests).

At the end of the day though if you don’t have this information, we can still help you, and for us family law problems have solutions.

If you would like to meet with us contact Hooper Family Lawyers at Victoria Point on (07) 3207 7663; or Hooper Family Lawyers Coolangatta on (07) 5599 3026.