Separation is a very difficult time for many people which is not surprising given that typically it combines some form of loss with fear and uncertainty as to the future.
Family lawyers are not counsellors but a good family lawyer ought to be able to empathise with the situation clients find themselves in; and provide some guidance as to what the best course of action will be in their circumstances.
The best solution for separation is reconciliation provided that underlying issues are addressed. The Family Law Act 1975 section 12C and 12E create obligations on legal practitioners to provide separating people with information regarding reconciliation services that may assist them.
Often however once people have made the decision to attend the lawyer’s office, they have already explored every option to save the relationship and have arrived at their point of no return.
Everyone’s circumstances are different but, in my experience, the following tips can help make the process less stressful, costly and timelier.
What to do when you have just recently separated?
The very first thing in my view is to get family law advice. You can typically do this in an attendance at a lawyer’s office for a “first meeting” with a lawyer.
The difficult part for clients is knowing which lawyer to choose, which can also be the most important part.
For some people budget will make a difference. Many lawyers offer free initial consultations, some give a 20-minute free phone consultation and there are community legal centres available. The thing to remember here is “you get what you pay for”.
My view is that the initial attendance is of critical importance in providing information that can affect the entire process or outcome of a client’s case.
Because everyone has different situations and circumstances, I don’t believe a lawyer can be adequately assess a client’s needs, provide advice as to the law, process, evidence and costs within 20 minutes or just “over the phone”. But because lawyers sell their time, it must be costs effective for the lawyer to take the time and manage the client’s budget.
We overcome this by placing no strict limit on the time a client attends upon us for the advice, while charging a “fixed fee”. Thus, the client doesn’t have to worry about looking at their watch and is free to explore all the questions they may have in an unrushed environment. In my experience at this first meeting, with a well-managed meeting, typically within 1 to 2 hours (at an average of 1 hour 30 minutes) most client’s report leaving our office “feeling better”, with an understanding of what they need to do moving forward. We also offer an after-interview phone call if there is something unclear or if a further question arises.
The information that we impart at this meeting covers issues such as:
- A summary of the law and how it applies to the client’s situation.
- An explanation of the processes available to resolve the matter by consent and processes if an agreement is not readily forthcoming.
- Provide a case strategy.
- Provide a strategy to get to an agreement with the other party, how to communicate and the steps most likely to maintain or promote amicable discussions.
- What to do and not to do in terms of proposed actions.
- Referral if necessary, to other information or service that may assist.
- As accurately as possible longer-term costs estimates, estimated costs for different outcomes/strategies, advice as to how to reduce legal costs, examining strategy and outcomes in the context of budget.
In essence, most legal services are about providing “damage control” for a client. “Cost exposure” is a necessary element of damage control, and also important in terms of the information a client needs to make commercial decisions.
Equally important is expertise. You need to have confidence in the advice you are receiving because, frankly, you’re dealing with your life savings and your children in many family law matters.
Family lawyers like anyone have different levels of experience and ability. Once thing that can help differentiate between lawyers is whether they are a “family law accredited specialist”. An accredited specialist has been through very rigorous further study, academic examinations, practical examinations and has had a minimum of 5 years’ experience. Looking at a lawyer’s bio on their firm’s website can be helpful as well.
Some general tips to assist post separation
From a practical perspective, after receiving initial advice and making contact with a lawyer, negotiations can commence. A negotiated outcome is by far the best outcome that can be achieved in family law. The quicker this can occur is better (and cheaper) still.
My view is that without some information and guidance from a lawyer you shouldn’t really start negotiations. The reason I say this is because unless you understand family law, you’re likely to get into an “information dispute” with the other party. Different people have different ideas about how the system works and if a clash arises, conflict which is counterproductive to negotiation, can result.
Another reason is a party can become “positioned”. This means something discussed is agreed to or misunderstood, and it can be difficult to move away from later on (say after getting advice). If both parties get advice there should be a fair degree of overlap in terms of expected outcomes, making an agreement more likely.
Maintaining good communication is another tip. I’m not sure if this is ever easy post separation. If you are able to keep things as amicable as possible it will make resolution much more likely. I normally recommend for to people to keep communication “businesslike”, if possible, to negotiate in writing and to avoid “mirroring” if someone says something you don’t like. Mirroring is where someone says something irritating and the other person does the same in return, usually leading to an escalation in conflict.
It is most important though to remember that everyone’s case is different, and strategy should be tailored to your situation. There is no one size fits all in family law.
Family law advice
If you have any queries in relation to family violence or parenting orders, 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.