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Why some women walk away from the family court

On the surface, their two-decade marriage might have looked a success: a large home, prestigious cars in the driveway and a gaggle of children growing fast.

But when Sarah’s* husband returned home each day from his high-paid job in Melbourne’s business district, she bore the brunt of his frustration and violence.

He urinated on her, cut her hair, assaulted her and forced her to sleep on couch cushions on the floor rather have her “dumb, dirty, stupid” presence in their bed.

When Sarah eventually fled – not a dollar to her name – and took out a restraining order, her wealthy husband warned she was “never going to get a cent”.

It is at this stage that Sarah could have considered Mediation as a mechanism to bring her husband to the negotiating table, mediation today can be conducted in a safe-space, where the parties can be in separate rooms in case of fear of violence and intimidation.  There are also online facilities available where it can be conducted from the safety of your own home.

Many disadvantaged women simply walk away from their entitlement to a fair division of property when relationships end because of a lack of quick, affordable ways to resolve family law disputes, according to new research from the Women’s Legal Service Victoria, launched on the eve of International Women’s Day.

A quick affordable method to resolve this could have been Mediation, had Sarah known of the options available to her, even if the matter had already gone to compulsory family mediation and a 60i certificate had been issued, there was nothing preventing Sarah from taking control of her life and invoking private mediation, this time with a qualified Mediator of her choice, the mediation would still be unbiased and facilitated in a neutral capacity but at least Sarah could feel comfortable with the person doing the mediation.

Dividing assets, like superannuation for example, through the family law system is far too complex for someone with no legal training, the service’s lawyers say.

Researchers interviewed about 50 clients who had small amounts of property to divide up after separation, with the average size of settlements about $71,000.

But these relatively modest sums could make a crucial difference to the lives of these women, who were often battling financial hardship.

They told heartbreaking stories of being admitted to hospital from court-related stress, or spending a year in a court battle, having to interpret legal documents with a dictionary in one hand.

Even before matters reached court, two-thirds of women had their claims delayed because their ex-partners were unwilling to make a full and frank disclosures of their financial position.

This meant they had to begin onerous court proceedings, rather than settle matters through negotiation,  however once more, appropriate dispute resolution through Mediation may have helped achieve a faster result.  Even if there had been a failed attempt at mediation in the early stages of the break up when things were highly emotionally charged,  as time passes, the opportunity to revisit mediation for resolution should not be overlooked.

The relevant laws are incredibly complicated and hard to interpret, and accessing any rightful ownership is a many-step process, said Helen Matthews, the director of policy at the legal service.

“At the moment it’s one-size-fits-all approach, no cheap or efficient way of dealing with smaller matters in the current system,” Ms Matthews saaid.

The majority of women interviewed – almost 90 per cent – had experienced family violence, including economic abuse, and all said the delays they experienced in resolving disputes only exacerbated their financial difficulties.

Once more, had Sarah been informed of the low cost solutions available with Mediation and the speed at which it could resolve things so she could get on with her life, things may have been very different.

Sarah’s only option when she left her husband was to sleep in a donated tent at the local showgrounds. Their children remained in the family home – he had never been violent towards them and Sarah felt they would be safe.

For three months she lived on cornflakes and canned food until she was placed in community housing.

Through her eight-year family court matter, Sarah had to constantly subpoena her partner – at more than $100 a pop – who did not want to disclose his financial situation. She was eventually awarded a $100,000 settlement.

Sarah continues to be terrified of her ex-husband, and said when she saw him at the court hearing she almost wet herself with fear. Negotiation through a third party would reduce this trauma for women in her position, she says.   The best qualified third party in such a situation is an appropriately qualified Mediator who has been accredited through the National Mediation Accreditation System and is registered with the Mediator Standards Board of Australia.

Family violence is only rarely taken into account in determining property settlements, researchers found, despite the fact that economic abuse often leaves women with limited resources.

Mediation however can also help manage high conflict cases such as Sarah’s through use of Restorative Justice and Shuttle Mediation processes along with online services that are available now where you can participate in the mediation from the safety of your own home.

There should be a streamlined system for small property matters, and strengthened obligations for financial disclosure, researchers say.

Sarah, who found the Victorian Women’s Legal Service by searching the terms “women and help” on a computer in the local library, says the free legal advice and support saved her life.

“I was suicidal and could see no future for myself. I’m so appreciative of them.”

*Names have been changed for safety reasons, article original source from the Age.

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