Families need new ways of ending strife

Monday 27 December 1999

The Australian Editorial that appeared as a follow-on to the "Court Out" and "Trial Separation" articles that appeared on Friday 24 December.

Christmas and New Year is a time of happiness and family security - but not for everyone. It is also a period that reveals the strain and conflict within some relationships and families. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness that a society cannot function in a healthy way if too many of these basic human link easily break.

In government there is a realisation that a different approach is needed. It is a paradox. The starting assumption for a new policy must be that policy can only do so much. Government has to encourage people to be self-reliant. Individuals must take greater responsibility for themselves and their families. This means more emphasis on preventing conflict, through education and counselling. Sometimes a mark of success in a pre-marriage program will be two people deciding they are not, after all, meant to be together. When conflict cannot be prevented, it must be resolved without making it worse. It has to be done quickly, cheaply and fairly, in a way that engages the people involved and encourages them to accept the outcome. Non-government agencies have the potential to offer a wide range of services - such as counselling and mediation - and the federal Government is right to encourage their growth.

For too long the Family court, and bitter argument about its workings have dominated public perceptions about family conflict. Certainly the experience of being a litigant in the court can be disillusioning. In its Christmas weekend edition The Australian published the account of one such litigant. Of course, there are always other points of view - those of another party, for example, or of court officers. Only 5 per cent of Family Court cases ultimately need a decision by a judge. Some of those cases could be dealt with more quickly and less expensively, removing causes of further resentment and conflict. Other cases entail unnecessarily protracted litigation before they settle. And there are cases that could be dealt with more conveniently by a non-government agency in a rural or regional area.

Where litigation cannot be avoided it should be made as short and simple as possible. For this reason, the new federal magistrates service, expected to begin next year, is a promising, if modest, venture. The idea is that magistrates with streamlined procedures will relieve the Family Court of simpler cases.

The Government's promotion of alternatives meed not be seen as a threat to the court. It may mean that the court finds itself with a more coherent and manageable mandate. Constructive criticism aside, the court has also suffered unreasonable attacks, made inevitable by its sheer prominence in the difficult field of family law.

If agencies do more conflict prevention and resolution, and the magistrates handle more litigation, the court should be able to concentrate its expertise on the more difficult and complex cases. The courts's Magellan project illustrates the potential. This project involves Victorian cases where there are serious allegations of child abuse. Taking a team approach, and with good co-operation from state agencies, the court has been able to resolve these difficult cases relatively quickly. The benefit is not just a saving of time and resources but probably the prevention of serious long-term damage to families. Better prevention and quicker remedies - these approaches will be in demand as family policy evolves.

Go to Men's Rights Agency letter in response, published on Wednesday 19 December 1999

Return to Family Law Intro page

Men's Rights Agency