The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on all of us.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the mental health of everyone has been (and continues to be) challenged in the face of tough government restrictions and forced social isolation, which risk our economic security, and our physical and mental health.
Whilst commercial courts throughout Australia have largely adjourned or suspended hearings, the family Court necessarily had to find a way to continue - the risk to litigants was too great for it to suspend operations altogether. This has meant that the Court (which previously had little access to technology) had to quickly adapt to virtual court rooms and hearings, and alter various processes, such as establishing a COVID-19 hearing list which could deal with matters impacted by the pandemic within days of an application being filed. The effect was immediate, and the message to those working in the system was clear: the Court would take a dim view of those who viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to behave inappropriately vis a vis family law matters (such as unilaterally varying parenting orders).
Impact of COVID-19 on family violence
My fear for the operation of the family law system during the pandemic is mainly for those who have not yet separated, particularly those living in circumstances of family violence, as the pandemic creates yet another barrier preventing their access to freedom and safety. As lawyers who specialise in supporting victims of family violence, it was clear that these circumstances had the potential to create the perfect conditions for violence to escalate. This situation has brought to the fore the inherent challenges in having a system where family violence and urgent protection orders are dealt with in a different court to family law parenting and property settlements. Intervention orders (usually the first defence to establishing a safe pathway for victims of family violence) seemed fraught in the context of significant court delays, and limited freedom for victims to escape the home to seek support and advice.
A post-COVID world
As restrictions start to ease, my primary concern is that we may face an avalanche of family separations, including in circumstances of family violence. The silver lining, if I can call it that, is that increased efficiencies in the operation of the family Court arising from improvements in systems and processes, and better access to and use of technology, will hopefully mean that these matters can be dealt with more swiftly.
The long term impacts from the pandemic on mental health are at this stage unknown. However, from a business perspective, the improved use of technology is likely to have a positive long term effect on client interactions generally as we move forward, with Telehealth and Zoom conferences likely to become the norm. This is indeed of benefit to clients who usually come to meet with family lawyers, in a state of distress.
Monica Blizzardis a director of KHQ Lawyers, and leads the family & relationship law team. She is an Accredited Family Law Specialist with the Law Institute of Victoria, a trained mediator and collaborative lawyer, and has 20 years’ experience working in family law.Monica regularly presents seminars for her peers on topics such as Binding Financial Agreements, complex property cases, family violence, child support, surrogacy and parenting matters.