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Conduct of Family Law Matters in a Pandemic

Conduct of Family Law Matters in a Pandemic

The World Health Organisation has declared Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to be a pandemic.  On 15 March 2020, the Government of Western Australia declared a State of Emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like other parts of the community, the family system in Western Australia has had to make some adjustments in response to COVID-19.  The table below sets out a summary of some of those changes that have been made and, importantly, services that are still available to parties involved in a family law matter notwithstanding the pandemic:

Part of the family law system

Impact of COVID-19

Getting legal advice

Developing and maintaining a level of mutual trust and confidence is an essential part of a successful relationship between a client and their lawyer.  Traditionally, in family law matters a foundation to building that sort of a relationship has been regular face to face meetings.

Given the advice from Government to “stay at home” and the travel restrictions that are now in place, face to face meetings are now more challenging.  In response to this, lawyers are increasingly offering clients other ways to communicate including telephone, email and video conferencing.

Family Dispute Resolution

Before seeking to commence proceedings in the Family Court in relation to parenting arrangements, in most circumstances, parties are required to participate in an external process known as Family Dispute Resolution (“FDR”).

The conventional model for FDR involves a series of meetings: one party having an intake session with the FDR provider, then the other party having an intake session with the FDR provider and finally both parties meeting together in a joint session with the FDR provider.

Traditionally, those meetings have, in most instances, taken place face to face.  However, with the restrictions now in pace arising from COVID-19, many FDR providers have adjusted their service delivery models.  Many providers are now able to offer FDR services in alternative formats including via video conferencing.

There is an online directory of FDR providers available at: www.familyrelationships.gov.au.

Negotiation via solicitors

In family law matters, where parties have solicitors acting for them and they instruct their solicitors to engage in negotiations on their behalf, those negotiations have, for the most part, occurred via an exchange of correspondence.  Since that correspondence is exchanged via email, it has continued largely unaffected by COVID-19.

What might change slightly is the manner of your lawyer getting instructions from you as those negotiations progress.  Often at significant points in the negotiations, your lawyer might have wanted to meet with you face to face.  Those exchanges will now take place in other formats such telephone, email or video conferencing.

Mediation Style Conferences

Another process available to parties seeking to resolve their family law dispute without having to incur the cost and delay associated with proceeding to a defended Trial in the Family Court is a process known as a Mediation Style Conferences (“MSC”).

Similar to what occurs with Family Dispute Resolution (see above), the process with a MSC has traditionally involved a series of three meetings: each party having an intake session and there being a joint session.  There are a number of MSC chairpersons available in Western Australia who are willing and available to conduct MSC’s via video conferencing.

The Australian Institute of Family Law Arbitrators & Mediators publishes an online directory of MSC chairs at: www.aiflam.org.au.

Family Court proceedings

Along with all other Courts in Western Australia, the Family Court of WA has implemented a wide-ranging response to COVID-19.

The Chief Judge has published a notice that outlines those measures.  You can view a copy of the notice on the Court’s website: www.familycourt.wa.gov.au.

One of the key measures is a move to conduct an increasing number of Court Hearings and other Court events by telephone (rather than the traditional method of parties and their lawyers attending Court in person).

Before the onset of COVID-19, the Court already had a capacity to receive documents electronically via its online service known as the Portal.  There is now increasing usage of the Portal as the primary method of lodging documents with the Court.

Restraining Orders

On 2 April 2020, the WA Attorney General announced that amendments to the Restraining Orders Act 1997 (WA) had passed through the State Parliament.

The changes include:

·        Enabling Restraining Order Applications to be lodged online;

·        Allowing the Family Court of WA to issue Interim Restraining Orders on an ex parte basis, in the same way the Magistrates Court is permitted to do so.

Please click here to read the full announcement from the Attorney.

https://www.mediastatements.wa.gov.au/Pages/McGowan/2020/04/New-laws-to-protect-family-violence-victims-during-COVID-19-pandemic.aspx?from=DigestNotification&e=nhQCfmfdvkW8RkSEKSK7Pw&at=9

William Sloan I Director I Accredited Family Law Specialist

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