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Listen: Separating in a Pandemic

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What are some of the issues facing families who are separating or have separated in the midst of a pandemic?

Jack Whelan chatted to Dr Mandy-Jo Ellis from the Relationspace, Carolyn Devries, CEO of NEW Way Lawyers, Australia’s first not for profit law firm and New Way Law Family Law expert practitioner Ryan Cropper where they discussed:

  • the enormous amount of stress across the board on families in all different areas at present;
  • how lockdown is making a massive contribution to intensifying existing family tension, and existing vulnerabilities and risks that were already present;
  • what the federal circuit and family court are trying to do about it;
  • as well as some tips for people battling in the lockdown according to The Separation Guide

Thinking about separating? Our 5-minute Q&A can help connect you with experts to guide you through the maze.

Jack Whelan:
Friends, welcome. It’s Jack Whelan here. I’m a Barrister, Mediator, a former chief of staff to the Commonwealth Attorney General and Senior Advisor to two Prime Ministers. I’m also the co-founder of The Separation Guide, which is an online service, which educates, triages, and connects people who are going through a separation and divorce to the services which they need. Welcome to a very important Separation Guide facilitated podcast.

Jack Whelan:
We’re focusing on the pressure of the pandemic, the pressure which this wretched COVID 19 virus, and more recently this even more wretched delta variant is having on families right across Australia. I’m joined by Dr. Mandy-Jo Ellis from Relationspace, a wonderful provider of support for families experiencing divorce, separation, and family conflict. Good day, Mandy, how are you?

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
Well, thank you, Jack. How are you?

Jack Whelan:
Terrific. Thank you. I’m also joined by Carolyn Devries. Carolyn is CEO of Australia’s first nonprofit law firm, New Way Lawyers. Good day, Carolyn.

Carolyn Devries:
Hi Jack. Thanks for having me.

Jack Whelan:
Absolute pleasure. And also I’m joined by Ryan Cropper from New Way Lawyers who is a practitioner in family law. Ryan, good afternoon to you.

Ryan Cropper:
Good afternoon. Thanks kindly for having me.

Jack Whelan:
Absolute pleasure. So a couple of things about our guests, firstly, Dr. Mandy-Jo Ellis has a doctorate in educational and developmental psychology, a master’s in school psychology. She has a bachelor of science in psychology and criminal justice studies. Mandy has extensive experience working with children, adolescents, and families in a variety of settings, providing planning, placement, treatment and assessment services involving highly complex mental health issues.

Jack Whelan:
Mandy has always pursued an interest in the interface of psychology and law, which is a often misunderstood or less than well understood area of the human experience in my own judgment. Now Mandy’s worked in a secure ward of a specialty mental health hospital with adults who’ve engaged in criminal behaviors with adjudicated youth in a secure juvenile justice facility, and as a family consultant attached to both the Launceston Registry and the Sydney Registry. Now the mission of relation space is to provide effective evidence based interventions and services to help build stronger relationships and negotiate healthy ways to cope with relationship changes. So check out the Relationspace at relationspace.com.au. It’s a terrific business and a wonderful service.

Jack Whelan:
Carolyn Devries as CEO of Australia’s first nonprofit law firm, is an experienced practitioner, holding a bachelor of laws and a graduate diploma in legal practice. Carolyn is admitted to practice in the High Court of Australia, the Supreme Court of Queensland and the Supreme Court of New South Wales, holding a bachelor of commerce and a master’s in human services, specializing in the management of nonprofit organizations.

Jack Whelan:
Carolyn has been publicly recognized and awarded for her work as of many years, but especially in establishing New Way Lawyers. As I’ve mentioned, Australia’s first non-profit law firm. In 2012, Carolyn was a finalist in the Telstra Queensland Business Women’s Awards, been nominated for the community and government innovation and young business women’s categories. And she was the winner of the community and government award.

Jack Whelan:
Carolyn is a recognized voice in the legal and community sectors. She’s also a regular columnist in the seniors newspaper. And as an aside, the word on the street is that Carolyn grew up on a farm in central west New South Wales, spending most Sunday afternoons with her family, checking the sheep into paddocks, and whilst her mum and dad would tell her to go and bring back the rogue sheep. Secretly Caroline will reveal to her friends that she actually cheered on the rebel sheep and admire their tenacity. It’s therefore completely in keeping with that, that sometime later Australia’s first, not for profit law firm was born.

Jack Whelan:
Ryan Cropper has a wide range of experience working on challenging family law and estate matters. Recently, he’s worked on obtaining an order for a parent to have sole parental responsibility and care of their daughter due to family violence concerns. He’s contested applications for a protection order and had that application withdrawn. He has secured an arrest warrant against the parent, who failed to appear at court after relocating into state with the child. As a practitioner, Ryan certainly sees the good, the bad, and the ugly in front of our court system.

Jack Whelan:
There’s also a rumor floating around that Ryan likes to whistle whilst he works, some favorites on his playlist I’m told, Baby Shark if he has been listening with his daughter, to music with his daughter, whilst at other times, it is That’s Life by Frank Sinatra. Welcome Ryan, again, and a shout out to your colleagues who hopefully enjoy whistling. Friends, so to a very, very important and difficult time in Australia, at this moment as we speak, about 80% of Australia is in lockdown, and that itself are the term lively and unfamiliar to all of us just 18 months ago. Much of Australia is also subject to curfews.

Jack Whelan:
There are protests in major cities about the loss of freedom right across the country, and the effect on families is profound. I want to share with you the most recent statistics from the separation guide Q and A. Across the last three months, that is in the three months to August, this is what the separation guide has observed. A 90% increase in requests for legal advice, an 81% increase in people seeking psychological support, a 48% increase in requests for financial advice, tellingly and sadly, a 78% increase in people seeking access to violence prevention services.

Jack Whelan:
A 42% increase in people seeking marriage counseling, a 41% increase in requests for accounting services, and a 55% increase in requests for support to finance their separation. So plainly friends, we are a country under extreme stress, and it’s having an impact on family life far and wide. To you, Mandy, firstly, what are your observations about how the pandemic is impacting upon families in Australia right now. Mandy.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
Sure Jack. In times of crisis that can bring opportunities, where the strengths of some families mitigating some of the COVID related stresses. However, there are so many changes, health concerns, economic pressures, social isolation, obviously, radically different work arrangements for families, people working from home trying to homeschool their children, including loss of employment, changes of economic circumstances.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
So COVID-19 and locked down is having a massive contribution to really intensifying existing family tensions and vulnerabilities or risks that were already present. So these involuntary protracted time together can make these minor irritations become really major pressure points for these families. So it’s really increasing mental health issues, addiction issues such as substance abuse, gambling. We’ve seen alcohol sales go through the roof.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
So in couples and families who are trying to separate anecdotally, and as well as your statistics, there is a huge increase. Due to some economic circumstances, there’s more families too, who were also separated under the one roof because economically they can’t separate. So that is certainly a far more challenging emotional environment. The only other thing I’d add in terms of children themselves in this circumstance, rather than families generally, is that with lock down and schools being closed, grandparents isolating, there are far fewer eyes on children at the moment as well. So there are fewer checks and balances that would normally be in place to help keep them safer as well.

Jack Whelan:
Thanks Mandy. Carolyn, what are you saying at the moment?

Carolyn Devries:
Similar to what Mandy said, Jack, there’s just an enormous amount of stress across the board on families, in all different areas, emotionally and financially. So I think everything that Mandy’s said we’ve seen as well. But from a legal perspective to drill it down, I think some of the things that we’re seeing is people that are coming to us with stressful relationship situations and feeling as though they need to leave, but not sure whether they should leave in light of the current circumstances, uncertainty about what separating looks like in a pandemic, what resources will be available to them moving forward, what services will be available to them moving forward. So I think we’re seeing people in very difficult situations where the relationship is not healthy, but they’re really needing to, or seeing no way out and having to stay at the moment.

Carolyn Devries:
The other big thing that we’re seeing is that, people who had previously finished through the legal system and closed out of that process are actually being bought back into the system again, due to the fact that, when the family law system was set up and people were working through parenting arrangements in particular, the pandemic wasn’t in mind 2010 or even five years ago. So people have set up parenting arrangements and parenting structures that were good at that time, but they don’t stand up to the stress of the inherent complexities of the pandemic situation that we’re dealing with now.

Carolyn Devries:
We’re seeing a lot of frustration of current arrangements that are just no longer workable through no fault of the parents themselves. I think the other thing that we’re seeing, which Mandy touched on, is just the very difficult day-to-day arrangements that separated parents are needing to work through and communicate about, particularly when there are lock downs and when children can’t go to school and parents can’t go to work, what that looks like. Can the current parenting arrangement be followed, or is it a case where one parent is an essential worker and can’t have the children and the other parent needs to have them at home while they’re working from home. So we’re just seeing a lot of things that were never contemplated, that the family law system would have to deal with. And we’re seeing that the systems needing to adapt very quickly.

Carolyn Devries:
The final thing that we’re noticing is, that at the same time as demand for services has increased significantly, the actual ability to supply these services in family law and domestic violence has actually reduced back. When the pandemic first started, we saw a lot of the community legal clinics and legal aid shut down their face-to-face services, and moved to online telephone services. But the problem was, was that people didn’t know how to access these services. So we saw a perfect storm of an increase in demand for services, but at the same time, a pulling back in the actual supply of those services.

Jack Whelan:
Perfect storming in indeed. Thank you, Carolyn. The most apt descriptor. Ryan, what are you saying at the [inaudible 00:13:09]?

Ryan Cropper:
Well, I agree with Carolyn and Mandy in terms of… I mean, if I could sum it up in one word, I’d say disorientating. Unfortunately, the legal system can be complex as it is, owing to the complexities of COVID 19 and all those things that Carolyn just talked about. Moms and dads are going through extremely stressful situations where they’re maybe faced without employment, and then also trying to navigate the family law system.

Ryan Cropper:
And our federal circuit court and family court of Australia have done a wonderful job in responding to that. And there’s been implementations like the COVID-19 lists that can assess the parties and try and relieve some of that pressure. Unfortunately like everything, it’s still is a process and parties are still going through this on a daily basis. It is an extremely complex and emotional area of law. But fortunately there is good response from the registrars and judges of the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court of Australia.

Jack Whelan:
It’s certainly a system under stress, trying to respond to this new level of demand. And as you say, Carolyn, the pandemic is affecting all parts of society in different ways and having unintended impacts [inaudible 00:14:27] impacts on the family court system. It’s good to see the family court system responding in a way that it is, when there’s huge resources are being applied in a call out to many people to come forward and provide pro bono assistance.

Jack Whelan:
So that’s a good thing and that’s welcome. And I think all of us as practitioners in this space, it’s very important to acknowledge that. Mandy, back to you. You mentioned at the moment that one of the impacts to the pandemic is it forcing people [inaudible 00:14:56] to separate, but because of the reality of lockdowns, many people are forcing to separate from being under the one roof. So separating under the one roof. What challenges does that create for a couple? And what’s the best advice you can give to people who are going through a challenge of separating under the one roof in a pandemic? Mandy.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
Very, very difficult situation. And it’s on the increase. People are having to… Economically they cannot afford to move apart. And they’re also to some degree trying to protect their children from the impact of COVID-19 as well. It can create a lot of increased stress to both the parents and the children. Communication, which is fraught often, it’s more difficult to keep the children protected from the difficult communication the parents are having.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
It’s a highly emotional time. There’s a lot of grief, a lot of anger and all kinds of feelings taking place. And with everyone under the one roof 24/7, very difficult to keep a lid on those things for any length of time. The rollout of digital services has provided these particular circumstances with some [inaudible 00:16:28]. But as Carolyn said before, it really does presuppose that parents are adequately resourced and generally tech savvy.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
So while that is seen as a mitigating factor for them in that they can access services privately while still at home, it still can create an extra level of stress in that digital communication and non face-to-face service provision, at what Ryan has pointed out as well is it’s such an extremely stressful time, is generally what people have been used to seeking.

Jack Whelan:
And of course there are just very practical things as well. I know that often when I’m mediating between couples, we’ll go to great lengths to ensure that there are private sessions, conversations that can be had in private, because there may be things that need to be said privately and without the knowledge of another party. That’s harder when you’re under the same roof. So behaviorally obviously it’s challenging, but even the logistics. The logistics of seeking advice and then the logistics of participating in a process itself can be even more challenging. So-

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
It’s… Sorry.

Jack Whelan:
Mandy, I was going to say that often we talk about the importance that parents, when they’re going through separation and divorce to model the right behaviors, even in disagreement, to try and model the best behaviors that they can. How does one do that under this pressure?

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
It’s extremely difficult to ask people who are in the breakdown of often longstanding relationships to explore avenues, or assistance. It’s often extremely emotional, they have a story to tell, they’re under intense pressure. And often their emotional responses at the times of these interventions are quite they’re in grief. And then to have to do that, as you said, in somewhat privacy, and then try and regroup and then face their family who’s just outside the next door, it’s really, really difficult for them to keep their feelings private, to keep information from their children, for their children not to be as influenced by the conflict.

Carolyn Devries:
If I could jump in there, Jack, I think that, this is heightened even further when we’re talking about families that are in situations of where there’s family violence and domestic violence. The ability to access services for those particular needs when someone’s under the same roof is just incredibly and inherently difficult. The ability for someone to hop on a phone, even though many services have moved to provision of services by phone is not feasible when the other person is actually in the same house and potentially listening in. And the person who needs help is worried about the fallout of that call.

Carolyn Devries:
It’s really interesting one of the experiences that we had as a firm in terms of adapting to that digital service provision quite quickly, particularly in the face of community legal services and legal aid drawing back was, we developed an initiative called lunch with our lawyer, and that’s our online Facebook group where one of our lawyers, every weekday from 12 to one was online and people could actually ask their questions in the Facebook group, either on the group page or alternatively via private message.

Carolyn Devries:
And what was really interesting is we had some incredibly high usage of that during the pandemic. And that still continues to now. But in addition, we had this person who used the service and they actually responded saying that they were using it from the bathroom. They were under the same roof and they were in lockdown. But they felt comfortable that they were able to actually get that advice because they weren’t on the phone having to talk about it. So I think it’s been particularly challenging in the settings where there has been family and domestic violence.

Jack Whelan:
Great service Carolyn, that lunch with the lawyer on Facebook.

Carolyn Devries:
Yes, that’s right.

Jack Whelan:
And what’s the take-up been like for that, Carolyn? I imagine it-

Carolyn Devries:
We started it-

Jack Whelan:
… [inaudible 00:21:06]?

Carolyn Devries:
… when the pandemic started, last year and the group has now grown to over 1500 members. But in addition, we also do things like we actually, in addition to responding individually to every question that’s asked, we also do a lot of care activities. So we sometimes do free book giveaways, that books that are focused on how to communicate effectively, and just different books about perhaps financial stress and how to plan a budget. So we sometimes do free books on there.

Carolyn Devries:
And also we also open the group sometimes up for the members to actually share their self care tips. So for example, what keeps you strong when you’re going through a separation and divorce or what keeps you strong during a lockdown. So we’ve been able to not only make that a legal resource, but also a space of encouragement and positivity for people who are going through these situations.

Jack Whelan:
Ryan, I mentioned earlier… Thank you, Carolyn. And that’s a fantastic service. Ryan, I mentioned earlier, that after Separation Guide’s website, there’s been a 78% increase in people seeking access to violence prevention services. Are you seeing more and more of these types of matters being heard before the courts at the moment? I’m interested in what you’re observing in that violence prevention space?

Ryan Cropper:
Certainly. I mean, we’re incredibly fortunate that where we are. I’m from our Burleigh Heads office. So I sit on the border of New South Wales in Queensland. So, I mean, in terms of the operation of the magistrates’ court, I mean, it was by phone for a period, but then largely back in person. Even in terms of our potential client inquiries, when they call through this, a lot of domestic violence questions, a lot of family violence as well, certainly compared to this time last year when COVID was just rearing its ugly head, it does seem that there has been a substantial increase in domestic violence questions, especially around [inaudible 00:23:15] applications and seems to be a lot more police intervention on the following 12 months.

Jack Whelan:
Mandy, back to you. One of the challenges obviously of being locked down, separating generally, but certainly separating in lockdown or during a pandemic is how to communicate well, how to organize one’s thoughts, communicate with someone who may not want to communicate, [inaudible 00:23:47] many people had their own communication challenges. What’s some advice do you give people who may enter the Relationspace and it becomes fairly clear that they’re actually either not communicating very well or finding it difficult to communicate? What are some practical tips you can give to people who need to improve their communication in a time of this great stress?

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
That’s a good question, Jack. At the Relationshipspace, we provide a lot of support to families on this issue. And it has definitely been on the increase. There are a variety of different things that we try to work with families in this regard. Some of them work through parenting applications on their phones, where they can exchange information without coming into contact with one another aside from just text or email.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
We offer parenting coordination as well, which assists with communication where communication can be monitored by us between the parties so that we can assist them with communication that’s in a written form. Certainly those are the more extreme ends of the communication difficulties. But generally protecting children as best they can from their views about their parental conflict. It’s really vital.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
It’s otherwise you wind up with children who have split loyalty and feel very divided, at a time when they’re already experiencing so much change within their family structure and now within COVID-19 as well. So it adds such an extra burden to these young children, children of all ages actually, which is noticed by the children depending on their age groups to varying degrees, but certainly managing to try and shield children from the parental conflict and the views and feelings that they have about that, is really vital to children’s mental health and to the outcomes for them in this regard.

Jack Whelan:
Mandy, and further to that, what does modeling the right behaviors actually look like? And obviously it’s done because it makes for an enhanced and much more amicable separation. But what does it look like to the kids? What does modeling the right behaviors look like to children? Mandy.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
It looks, what it appears for the children is that they are allowed to have their own feelings, that the children don’t expect to meet the needs of parent. The parent is still the one meeting the needs of the children. That they’re kept shielded and less aware of the parental conflict, or any of the history between the parents about how things have arisen. So to them, it’s the best outcome for the children is where they largely unaware.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
They know that their family has changed in structure, and that alone is such a massive all encompassing change for them, which can impact them differently depending on their developmental stage. But really our focus is on helping the parents to learn the vital importance of being able to hold back around their children and around, not just when they’re physically present, but when they’re in ear shot, keeping good boundaries with them, not exposing them to the use of checking parents emails, or having access to other correspondence between parents. Things of that nature, Jack.

Jack Whelan:
Thank you, Mandy. Carolyn in the context of, and also to you Ryan, the context of representing people who may be in a less than amicable separation. In that context, how do you go about advising your clients? And many matters have to go to court. That’s just the reality of it. Some matters cannot be resolved outside the court system. And so many matters do have to end up in a courtroom. That’s why the courts are there.

Jack Whelan:
But in that context, how do you advise clients in relation to some of these behavioral issues, which Mandy’s just referenced? How do parents model the right behaviors in the context of going through a very difficult litigation? First you, Carolyn, and then I’m interested in your views, Ryan as well. Carolyn.

Carolyn Devries:
Overall, I think the most important thing that a family lawyer can do is actually explain very robustly to a client, the principles of the family law act and that it’s based on the best interests of the children. And trying to get the clients to shift their focus above their own issues, which are not insignificant. It’s not denying that there might be hurt and there might be loss and there might be grief that they’re going through, but trying to elevate them above those issues to focus on what’s best for the children and telling them that, that is what the family law system is going to be focused on.

Carolyn Devries:
Practically that looks like connecting clients at an early stage to lots of support services that are relevant to their situation. So to counseling, to financial advisors, if there’s fears and worries about what the financial future looks like. So connecting them with appropriate support services that are relevant to them. Internally for us, that also means connecting them to our client care program.

Carolyn Devries:
So for any client that’s involved in a legal matter and working with one of our lawyers, who’s helping them resolve that, we also offer a voluntary client care program, which gives them access to a range of different things. So there’s a weekly blog that goes out that talks to their situations. So how to positively communicate how to deal with grief and loss. It also helps them with some of the practical things they might be dealing with.

Carolyn Devries:
So if they are struggling financially, we have the ability to do food hampers for the clients. They also have access to our free resource library, which has books for mums, books for dads, books for kids that get them focused on really moving forward and trying to resolve this in an amicable way.

Carolyn Devries:
And I guess the last thing that I’d like to speak to there, Jack is just, we always approach working with clients from an amicable point of view, trying to get people to understand that they need a future working relationship with the other parent. That at some point there’s going to be weddings to go to and graduations, and they need to have some semblance of a working relationship with the other parent.

Carolyn Devries:
Now sometimes we do see clients that come to us, and it is the exception rather than the rule, which is good. But they are really hell bent on using the process to punish the other parent. And if that’s the case, we’ll do some good reality checking about maybe, we aren’t the best fit law firm for you because we don’t want to cause any more collateral damage. Sometimes it’s the case if a client’s presenting like that, we feel that we can manage it and we should stay on in the matter to really help that process and help get them on track with being more constructive and positive in the way they’re approaching their parenting matter. But sometimes if it really feels like they’re not going to take on board advice, it may also be best to say that look, we’re not the right fit for you.

Jack Whelan:
Parents for life is the reality, and it’s reality which people need to understand. And hopefully they have that capability to understand that. I find it when I’m mediating, it is just important to consistently point that out, because the current relationship has changed. It might be returned to, but there is a new relationship and there are still children. Ryan, further too about my question to Carolyn, in a cut and thrust of daily litigation, you must experience moments when you have concern for the wellbeing of children who are in the proximity of that litigation. How do you go about approaching the subject when you start to have concern for how a child may be influenced by the legal proceedings, which they’re either party to or observing? Ryan.

Ryan Cropper:
Certainly I think too, one thing it’s being cognizant of the fact that, as Carolyn and Mandy have both said, it’s the importance to act in the best interest of the children. Unfortunately sometimes you do see matters where, either one of the parents might not be acting in a way that we’d consider or the family would actually consider to be acting in the best interest of the children.

Ryan Cropper:
I think too, I fully agree with what Carolyn was saying in terms of reality checking clients too. I think, part of being a family law practitioner is unfortunately having the hard conversations. I can say that sometimes people believe that they’re acting in the best interest, but perhaps there might be a better way to go about those actions, perhaps a more amicable way. Especially in regard to COVID-19 where, I think it was about the 26th of March, 2020 when the honorable chief justice [inaudible 00:34:16] released a media release talking about parenting orders in COVID 19.

Ryan Cropper:
And one of the things that I try and do now, following that is when we do get new matter on where it looks particularly contentious, or it’s going to be one of those matters that’s going to proceed all the way through to final hearing is, having a think and having a talk about what we can concede on and what it is that we have to hold firm on, and then trying to act sensibly and reasonably. Unfortunately, sometimes family law practitioners can adopt the areas or grievances of their clients. And we try and remain as supportive as we possibly can without getting invested in the emotional side of things, whilst also being there to support them.

Jack Whelan:
It’s a point very well made, often, and I hear what you’re saying. I think it is a minority. But there are people who will cheerlead their clients into a courtroom.

Ryan Cropper:
Certainly.

Jack Whelan:
That’s a sad reality, and that’s plainly not the job. The job is to speak very frankly and have those difficult conversations. I’ll get to you Carolyn and then to Ryan again, and then finish with Mandy. Carolyn, one of the hardest things to do in family law is explaining to someone what fairness actually is, especially in the context of people having a preconceived view, that fairness is either 50/50, or in terms of a split of the asset pool. Or fairness demands that I should get out of the marriage what I put in. I’m interested in how you go about explaining what fairness is in family law and how it operates, and then to you Ryan. Carolyn.

Carolyn Devries:
That’s a difficult question, Jack. And I think it is one that comes up a lot in practice. I think one of the tools that I use with clients is that, you can very clearly have your lawyers hat and your layman’s hat. And like what Ryan said, sometimes you can take off your lawyer’s hat and put on your layman’s hat and really empathize with the client and say, “Look, I understand why you’re feeling that way. I understand why you have those views.” And a lot of people would probably relate to that.

Carolyn Devries:
An example that I can give you on that is, when a party to the relationship comes in and they’ve been cheated on, there’s often a real focus on the other party should be punished and particularly in property settlement that they should receive less because of that.

Carolyn Devries:
So I think being able to empathize from a layman’s point of view, wearing that layman’s hat, but at the same time, then putting back on the lawyers hat and saying that’s not what the law says. This is what the law says and explaining that if their goal is to have those issues aired, they’re actually going to be very disappointed when they get to court, because there really isn’t a forum to share their story as such and to have those issues heard. It’s very procedural, it’s a very clear application of the law to a factual situation. So I think being able to show that empathy and humanity, but at the same time being able to be very clear about what the law says.

Jack Whelan:
And look, I completely agree. It is a daunting moment for someone to enter a courtroom for the first time and actually to realize if they had not been advised previously, that much of their story whilst entirely relevant to them and important, may not be relevant in the context of a courtroom. Ryan, you must see people entering the court system, but with a degree of what we’ll call optimism bias. How do you go about managing that, given that your experience will be that often people with an optimism bias, will enter the courtroom and perhaps be let down by what actually happens?

Ryan Cropper:
I completely agree. I think it’s one of those things where, as Carolyn was saying, it is procedure based. It is not an opportunity to air your grievances and things like that. Whilst there are contributions based entitlements, if we’re talking family law, property matters, certainly with parenting and things like that too. A lot of times we see some people and they might have a preconceived notion of what the first return date it’s going to look like and think everything’s going to be resolved and it’s going to be one and done, when unfortunately there’s things where in parenting matters, like it might be appropriate to have appointed an independent children’s lawyer or go and see a family consultant to have a family report generated.

Ryan Cropper:
And I think it’s, one of those things where it comes down to providing really, really clear advice, and doing so on a step by step basis where sometimes, I mean, as we can all appreciate the difficulty of going through separation plus the difficulty that COVID presents, and then people come into court on the first occasion. And like you say, being a little bit let down by, I wanted the house sold or I wanted this or that, or it has to go to an interim hearing for spousal maintenance and just understanding the process.

Ryan Cropper:
And I think as practitioners where we need to be really acute is providing that advice step-by-step, making sure that the clients understand where their matter’s up to, making sure they understand the court processes and they’re given an opportunity to ask those specific questions, because that way you can avoid the feeling of being let down, which can come with its own series of problems further on.

Carolyn Devries:
I think also to jump in there, Jack, one of the things that you also need to do with the client is to actually tell them about their very worst outcome. And that’s conversation you need to not be scared to have with a client. So often they are focused on their best outcome or even possibly, something less than their best outcome, but they are certainly don’t have in their mind anything like the worst outcome.

Carolyn Devries:
So that’s something that we do very early on in the process, including in the initial consultation, depending on the level of information and details that we have. But certainly once we have all the available information and advice is actually telling them what the worst case outcome can look like and before they go to court. Because you don’t do a client any service by going off and filing in court and then telling them what the worst case could look like.

Jack Whelan:
Indeed.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jack Whelan:
Indeed it is [crosstalk 00:41:14].

Ryan Cropper:
I think one thing too that, is something that, however, it may be a little bit minor is something to consider that’s good too is, with the courts not being face-to-face at present, there is the potential for saving costs, even with traveling to and from court appearances and things like that to be able to just call them from your office or even at home, if you’re in lockdown and make your appearance.

Ryan Cropper:
Whilst it might only take 20 or 30 minutes, sometimes depending on your location, there can be other fees for travel and things like that. So clients can experience some of the benefits. Although, talking to that as well, there is the issue there with sometimes perhaps not being able to have that personal impression where you get to meet your lawyer, especially if you’re coming on board right now in the midst of the pandemic and lockdown.

Jack Whelan:
There’s still pros and cons with that, isn’t there? But one of the things that I’ve noticed as I think of virtue of all of the online work that we have to do is that people when going to court is an event, and even attending a mediation can be an event and it can cause quite a lot of apprehension. What I find is that attending things online, they’re regarded slightly more as more like meetings than events.

Jack Whelan:
And it’s a meeting that you attend with a coffee in hand and it just tends to be… I mean, it’s very context specific, but it does tend to be a little bit less stressful. First just to finalize, and I’m interested in Mandy’s views in particular, there is another cohort of people here. We’ve spoken a lot today about people under a lot of pressure and trying to manage how to separate or how to communicate, how to organize their thoughts under the pressure of a pandemic and lock down and curfews, and it’s a large group of people.

Jack Whelan:
The other cohort, based on my experiences and perhaps yours as well, the people who perceive the impact of the pandemic and lock downs to be robbing them of time and experiences that they would ordinarily have. And that seems to force them decision-making around relationships. A lot of people are saying to me, “Look, we’ve just had a good chat about where we’re at, and when the pandemic is over, we actually want a separation to be finalized.”

Jack Whelan:
There is are amicable people who’ve used the reality of being in lock down to have some tough discussions of their own, That presents its own psychological challenges. Mandy, what is your advice to people who are in that cohort who are experiencing a different type of separation, sponsored in a different way by the same pandemic? Mandy.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
I mean, that’s a very good question. And I know that Carolyn and Ryan have both touched on, and yourself managing people’s expectations. But we see at the Relationspace, people from all the way through, from pre separation, considering separating, and all the way through into the court system, well into the court system. I just want to clear your question, Jack. Was it helping people who are staying together to see the pandemic out and then separate afterwards?

Jack Whelan:
It’s people who’ve made a decision to separate because the reality of the pandemic has actually sponsored in them, to query their relationship.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
Absolutely. Having this involuntary time together as a much more intense way than they otherwise would have, is a real Tinder box for a lot of people who had already had issues underpinning their relationships to begin with. And it has been an experience with a lot of people who are suddenly thought their relationship was kind of okay, and now they’ve been together in this lockdown and gone, whoa, this is just not good.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
And it’s very difficult to try and navigate this. Seeking assistance as early as possible, is really beneficial, and trying to stay out of the court system as much as possible. So whether that’s coming to places like the relation space for early intervention, family therapy, whether it’s mediation, family dispute resolution, getting as much sorted between you in as early as you can through the situation prior to even considering court procedures, would be my advice and our position.

Jack Whelan:
Thanks Mandy. Friends, our time is nearly at an end. I’d like to thank you all very much for providing such variable insights, sharing your experience and lending your expertise to the discussion. It’s been very, very useful. I think the one thing that we can perhaps all agree on is that no two experiences are the same. And so the best advice that we would all give to people is that when you are going through a separation, inform yourself as best you can.

Jack Whelan:
There are wonderful providers out there who can assist, access that information in a way that you can, whether it’s Facebook lunch with lawyers, terrific idea, Carolyn. Or also accessing the services of Relationshipspace. Informing oneself, educating oneself really does increase the chances of making the best decisions that you can to assist you and your family through a difficult time.

Jack Whelan:
Mandy Ellis, on Relationspace, Carolyn Devries and Ryan Cropper from New Way Lawyers. Thank you very much for joining the Separation Guides podcast on the pressure of the pandemic. Thank you, friends.

Carolyn Devries:
Thanks Jack.

Mandy-Jo Ellis:
Thank you for having us.