As published on the My Family Law website:

As a family lawyer with quite a few years in the business, and none of the last six in a Court, it is increasingly difficult for me to see why I belong to such a small club.  The ‘Divorce Without Court’ club, that is.

There are days when I feel pessimistic about the individuals and families who will be dragged through the Court system, or dragged through negotiations that are always only a hair’s breadth away from ending up in Court.  And there are days when I get phone calls like the ones I received last week.  The kind of calls I love and loathe.  I love that another lawyer has started to see the light.  I loathe that a separating family has been put through more pain.

A fellow practitioner, ‘X’, set off to Court one morning last week, with high hopes of being out of Court before lunch, with Consent Orders having been filed.  On the day, the call to me went something like this: It’s a ‘simple case’, there’s ‘nothing to argue about’, the parties are ‘pretty much there’, there are ‘just a few details to iron out’.

Brave words as it turned out, and at 4:00pm, things were worse than they had been at 10:00am.

‘The husband’ brought along his new girlfriend.  Nobody knew the girlfriend was pregnant, especially not ‘the wife’.  Hmmm.

The judge then made a comment in the callover that ‘pissed off’ the ‘other’ barrister.  Oh dear.

The wife had been told she would be finished by lunchtime.  At lunchtime she rang work to say she wouldn’t make it, because an urgent matter had been interposed, and the judge wasn’t available to make the Orders.  Can they really do that?

At 2:30pm the wife rang a friend to collect the kids from school.  Another favour to be returned.  Groan.

Meantime the husband decided that one of the items to be ‘ironed out’, the choice of school in fact, was going to be decided his way or the highway, and since he’d been made to wait around all day it might as well be his way ‘because he was paying the lawyers anyway’.

Molehills became mountains.  By 3:00pm Vesuvius was rumbling, and at five to four it blew.  All agreements reached in the months and days up until that time were ash, and the hapless lawyers (not a psychologist, financial planner, collaborative lawyer or mediator in sight), headed back to their offices to diarise the next Court date.  The hapless lawyers?  Oh, and yes, the clients.  They went home worse than empty handed.

At 4.30pm my colleague rang and said, ‘Sorry about lunch.  Want to hear about my day in Court?  It was the best advertisement for collaboration you could ever get!’

The case had cost a total of $49,000 to that point.  The total family assets had been $635,000.  The assets after that day were $586,000.  And there was less than no progress.  Unbelievable? Indeed it is.

The post script to this story is that the clients saw the system as being only part of the problem in their disastrous day.  They blamed their lawyers too.  One of them was ‘left in a room all day’, and apparently left in the dark.  One of them thought that their lawyer should have spent time with them, rather than ‘schmoozing all the other lawyers in the place’.  One of them sacked their lawyer and is going to represent themselves, and ‘that place just really sucks’.  That person is going to ‘read the internet’ to work out how to do that.  Good luck to all.

A great advertisement for communication training for lawyers, and for Alternative Dispute Resolution?  Sure is.  And a really bad advertisement for the $300,000,000 we spend on the Family Courts every year?

By Marguerite Picard