Whilst it is the role of a family lawyer to assist parties to resolve disputes arising from the breakdown in their relationship – it may be a little known fact that lawyers also have an obligation under the legislation to inform parties of alternatives to separation and litigation.
The obligations on lawyers to direct clients towards non-litigious approaches are set out in the legislation. Section 12E of The Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) obligates lawyers to provide clients with information about non-court based family services if they are consulted by a person considering instituting proceedings under the Act.
As lawyers we know all too well the emotional and psychological effects of relationship breakdowns on parties and children. However, there is also a huge economic cost to the community arising from divorce and relationship breakdowns. The Department of Social Services estimates the costs to the economy are $3 billion annually.
In an attempt to assist parties to resolve matters before a breakdown in their relationship occurred, the Federal Government has committed $20 million over a 12 month period to the “Stronger Relationships Trial”.
The trial commenced on 1 July 2014 and under the scheme, 100,000 couples can register for a $200 subsidy to access relationship counselling or education. The trial is not restricted to those contemplating marriage, but to all couples engaged in a committed relationship including engaged, married, de facto and same sex couples. The subsidy can be used at any approved not for profit service provider of the couples choice.
In a media statement regarding the trial, the Minister for Social Services said that relationship education and counselling can assist couples to cope with challenges and changes, before they become big issues.
It would be easy to adopt a cynical view regarding the benefits of the trial; after all, there are many competing priorities for government funding. However there is no doubt that individual and family wellbeing are vital to a functioning and productive community.