The Center for Out of Court Divorce Denver recently hosted a visit from Patrick Parkinson, a leading advocate of family law reform in Australia. Patrick, a professor of law at the University of Sydney, was a major participant in the creation of Australia’s Family Relationship Centres which COCD Denver is loosely modeled after. Patrick spoke at length about the negative impact litigation has on families and how this motivated him to create a multi-disciplinary, out-of-court alternative to litigation.
The first Family Relationship Centre was established in 2006. Today there are 65 facilities throughout Australia that provide access to a broad range of free or highly subsidized services to assist families in transition. Available services include:
- family dispute resolution (mediation);
- individual, group or joint counseling;
- access to child focused information, education, and referral networks that correspond with a family’s needs;
- national telephone service known as the Family Relationship Advice Line; and
- a website that provides useful information about family relationship issues and referral services.
The goal at the outset was to change the cultural perception that Court intervention was the “go-to” option for handling post-separation parenting disputes. This goal has been realized. Today, the Centres are recognized as a valued community resource that are deeply embedded within the Australian culture. In fact, there are requirements under Australia’s Family Law Act for parties to make a genuine effort to resolve their disputes via family dispute resolution before taking a parenting matter to court. Of course, there are exceptions to this requirement such as cases involving family violence or child abuse.
As the Center’s attorney mediator, I took particular interest in Patrick’s observation that family disputes are not merely “legal problems”, but also “relationship problems”. Relationship problems in the context of a divorce or separation concern those factors that hinder the separating couples’ ability to co-parent successfully — be they communication problems, conflicting parenting styles, etc.
Prior to joining the Center, I litigated family law cases for over 14 years. I can attest that domestic courts are not designed to handle the “relationship problems” Patrick refers to. In my experience, if the factors hindering successful co-parenting are not addressed early on in the dissolution process, parents will continue the litigation cycle for years following their divorce or separation.
Australia’s Family Relationship Centres have proven so successful in preventing cyclical litigation because their holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to assisting families in crisis is available early on in the separation process. For now, COCD Denver is the only similar facility within the United States. We hope that through replication, our services will become as readily available nation-wide as they are in Australia.