Dear Senator Brandis,
I don’t know you, and I doubt very much that you know me. I don’t really follow your politics either- probably because I am blessed to live in this Country of ours where I don’t always agree with the decisions that are made, but I trust in the democratic process we have in place.
However, there is one issue that I cannot let slide anymore and it seems that you and your Government are the only ones with the power to make any real difference. So I do hope you might hear me out.
You see Mr Brandis, when it comes to separating families, we are failing in this Country.
I am a family lawyer. I work with families and children every day who are travelling the tenuous path that is divorce and family breakdown. I have seen firsthand the damage that is done to families but particularly children, during divorce. Many of these families will blame people like me, the lawyers. And maybe those complaints are justified.
But for me, right now, a family lawyer here in Brisbane, Australia, I am seeing the harsh reality of our failing family law system on the people that need our help the most.
It is not the fault of the lawyers.
It is not the fault of the Courts.
And it is certainly not the fault of our families.
It is the fact that divorce/ separation/ heartbreak and the resultant harm to children are not ‘sexy’, vote winning political issues. As such you and your Government are not giving these families the support that they need at what can be one of the hardest times of their lives.
Relationships- the most important things in life
Relationships, Mr Brandis are the most important things in the lives of us all. Family relationships are at the core of our human identity. They form the backbone of our community, society and culture. And yet, the system established to help our families when they need it most, is failing them, immeasurably.
Every 30 minutes an Australian child experiences the breakdown of their family. That means that in the time it might take you to read this letter, another Australian child will be thrown into the turmoil that is relationship breakdown.
Thanks to extensive national and international research, we now know that the mere act of separation or divorce does not necessarily cause harm to children. It is of course the conflict that can flow on, for years and years thereafter, that will mean that so many of these children are unable to achieve their full potential in life.
Unless we start to properly fund our Family Law Courts and all those services supporting families experiencing divorce and separation, we will continue to put too many children at risk of harm.
Victims of circumstance- the children
As a lawyer, I specialise in keeping separating families out of the Family Courts and working with them in a way that gives them the best possible chance to have a dignified divorce- the kind of divorce that when all is said and done, they can look back on and feel a sense of pride in how they managed one of the most challenging times in their lives.
Why is this important? Well I know from 15 years in this industry that a divorce, where two parents find solutions together, has the best chance of reducing conflict and therefore ensuring that their children can go on and live to their full potential in life. These children will have the best chance of never becoming statistics.
Thankfully, I am not alone. Many family lawyers all around the Country spend their days looking for solutions to difficult programs to ensure families are not further damaged but instead are armed with the tools they need to move through their divorce and out the other side with grace.
But the challenge is that no matter how hard we work there will always be families that through circumstance need more support, more assistance, more kindness and more care. And it is these families that find themselves before our Family Courts.
I don’t go to Court much these days but when I do, it tends to be as an Independent Children’s Lawyer representing children who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in the middle of a conflictual legal battle.
These children are just like you and I were many years ago- they have hopes and dreams for their future- but the longer their families are before our Courts, the smaller those dreams become.
These children, above all, need our utmost care and attention, but right now they are getting so little. To properly help these children we need to be able to better help their parents, many of whom struggle with addictions, mental health conditions, have been the victims of domestic violence or have just lost their way so much that they can no longer find any good in the world.
These parents fill our Family Courts and right now we cannot assist them.
Our Family Courts are in crisis
Where I work in Brisbane, our Family Courts are in crisis and I know we are not alone. All around this Country, the Courts that were established to support our families when they most need it, are crumbling.
Where 5 years ago we had 5 Family Court Trial Judges in Brisbane, we now have 2. And yet the number of families before this a Court have steadily increased over that time. Our Federal Circuit Court deals regularly with lists of over 30 families in 1 day. Even if a Judge was willing to start at 7am, finish at 7pm and not stop for a break, the most they could ever offer each of those families is 24mins. Imagine that Mr Brandis- someone you don’t know has to understand the past 15 years of your family history and make a decision about your future, particularly where your children might live for the foreseeable future in a measly 24 minutes! And all that in the time it takes to watch an episode of Home and Away. Many of our Brisbane Judges have been known to sit well past 7pm to do their best with the limited resources available and try and ensure families some justice, but this is not always the case.
The reality is often far worse. Courts start at 930am and should close at 5pm. Judges, like all of us need to eat and so of course even with only a short lunch break, these families can really only be given, at most, 14 minutes each of a busy Judges day. I can’t do much in 14 minutes Mr Brandis let alone read half a ream of filed Court documents, consider passionate and personal submissions and deliver a considered decision that will affect the day to day life of a family for the next 2-3 years. Perhaps you can though Mr Brandis and it is why you expect it of our Judges.
The waiting lists in our Family Courts are the longest they have ever been. The cases before our Courts are the most complicated we have ever seen. These are the families that need the most support from our system and we are offering them the least.
A lot can happen in 3 years in the life of a child
I am a mother to an almost 4 year old. Each day in my work I help families with children just like mine. Each day I remind myself just how lucky I am that life has thrown me the cards it has- I can go home each night, kiss my daughter on the cheek and tuck her in.
Imagine Mr Brandis if you were unable to spend time with your children other than for a few hours here and there for more than 2 years. All because the Court that you have tasked with helping your family when no one else can, cannot help, thanks to a lack of funding, resources and support.
Right now in our Country children are waiting 2, 3 sometimes even 4 years to find out their fate. Parents and children are missing out on opportunities to live, grow and dream all because our family law system cannot do better.
A lot can happen in 2 or 3 years Mr Brandis. And 3 years in the life of a child is like 30 years to an adult.
Divorce is the second most significant grief event any of us can experience- second only to the death of a loved one. At least with that loss, the passing of someone we love, we have certainty, finality and therefore an opportunity to come to understand, accept and grieve.
Right now families experiencing divorce in this Country that find themselves in our Courts face many years of uncertainty. This only fuels conflict. It is this conflict that ensures that our children suffer. These children are harmed in ways we will never be able to repair- in short, they will never be able to achieve their full potential in life all because we couldn’t give them or their parents the support that they needed most in their time of need.
So what can you do Mr Brandis?
- We need more Judges so that families can move through our Courts and out the other side much quicker;
- We need funding for more support- such as drug and alcohol assistance, relationship and parenting education and legal aid services so families in our Courts can access the information and support they need;
- We need more counsellors and psychologists working back in our Courts showing families better ways;
- We need our State Child Welfare Departments openly communicating with our Family Courts so that our children that are most at risk have a chance at being safe in a world that currently offers them such limited support thanks to all the red tape.
And that’s just the beginning. It’s time we focused on solving these problems- not just hoping they will go away.
Families in our Court system need care, kindness and our help. They need decisions. They need outcomes. The right outcomes- the ones that can only be achieved with proper funding of Judges, family supports, and lawyers.
They need to come out the other side as quickly as possible if their children are ever going to have a chance at achieving their full potential in life.
Mr Brandis I appreciate that for our Australian Government, pouring money into our Family Law System may not seem that glamorous, vote worthy or politically endearing but I challenge you to find something more valuable in life than relationships- particularly those between children and their parents.
It is time you found a way to support our Family Courts so that the children of this Country, who through no fault of their own, find themselves in the middle of family breakdown, have the best opportunity to achieve their full potential in life.
Isn’t that all you want for your children? It’s certainly all I hope for mine.
Mother, Wife, Lawyer
(someone who cares deeply about relationships, families, children and people and hopes that you might take a moment to consider that families need our help more than ever before)
Those of you that follow my writing know that the Courts are something I steer away from for many reasons. For those of you who have or are finding yourselves navigating the Family Court system, this letter is for you, in the hope that we can start some considered discussion about the need to properly support our Courts so that they can properly support families. I appreciate that many of you may have your own experience of the Court system and many will have many concerns to share but I would ask that we look for ways to positively put families and children on the national agenda so that we have the best chance of seeking the political support that will be needed to have any hope of effecting change.