Australia now requires anyone seeking a court order concerning children to first file a dispute resolution certificate with the court acknowledging that they have engaged in some type of dispute resolution. This is only necessary if the parties plan to invite the courts to make parenting determinations and other child related issues. Should you and your former partner be able to reach a settlement without seeking the court’s help, there is no requirement to attend dispute resolution.
The reason for this requirement is that Australia has a strong preference for families to reach amicable agreements without resorting to litigation. Generally, the outcome is better when parties are able to reach an agreement independent of the court’s involvement. Dispute resolution encourages early and full disclosure of relevant information, and allows parties to engage in a process that not only avoids legal action but also minimises cost.
What is a Dispute Resolution Certificate? And do I need one?
The certificate is simply a piece of paper that confirms that you and your former partner have attempted some type of family mediation with a registered family dispute resolution practitioner. It will state one of the following:
- The other party did not attend family dispute resolution;
- The parties attended and made a genuine effort to resolve the dispute;
- The parties attended but one or both of them did not make a genuine effort to resolve the dispute; or
- The practitioner decided that the case was not appropriate for family dispute resolution
You will need a certificate before you can apply to the court to litigate any child related procedures unless:
- The application is for consent orders
- There is a history of risk or family violence and/or child abuse;
- The application is urgent;
- It is impractical to attend family dispute resolution;
- The application alleges a contravention of a court order made within the past 12 months;
- An application for a parenting order has been previously filed with the court; or
- Agreement has been reached.
If the above scenarios do not apply to your case, and you fail to file a certificate prior to seeking the court’s help in a child related proceeding, you could be forced to pay additional costs and/or be ordered to attend the required family dispute resolution.
Once provide to the court, the certificate becomes part of the file and is considered an official court document.
What is a Registered Family Dispute Practitioner?
Your dispute resolution certificate must be signed by a registered family dispute resolution provider in order to be valid. This person may also been known as a “family counsellor” or “dispute resolution practitioner.” An individual or organisation must be qualified through meeting certain standards of training, experience and suitability for inclusion on the Family Dispute Resolution Register.
A “family consultant” does not meet the necessary qualifications, however can still assist you through the process. These individuals are licensed psychologists and social workers who are contracted by the Family Court and assist and advise people involved in the proceedings, assist and advise the court, and also help the parties resolve disputes.
If you are looking for a registered family dispute practitioner you may access the register online at: fdregister.familyrelationships.gov.au/Search.aspx.
Bear in mind that not every legal practitioner or counsellor is qualified to act as a registered family dispute resolution practitioner. You may consult the above website or simply as your lawyer for a recommended family counsellor should you need dispute resolution services.
Prior to commencing the dispute resolution, the registered practitioner or counsellor must assess whether dispute resolution is appropriate in your particular case. The assessment will consider many factors, such as the history of family violence, safety of the parties, equality of bargaining power amongst the parties, emotional/psychological/physical health of the parties, and other relevant factors. Should the practitioner decide that dispute resolution is no appropriate in your situation, they will issue a certificate that says as much.
Do I need a lawyer?
It is very important to note that registered family dispute practitioners are not permitted to give any type of legal advice to the parties. These individuals are to be neutral and should only act to help the parties resolve their issues. Even if you chose a private practitioner who is in fact an lawyer, she may not administer legal advice to either party. These dispute resolution practitioners may discuss the legal process and the logistics of subsequent legal action, and they may provide you with contact information for Legal Aid or other lawyers, however they may not administer legal advice, which begs the question: Do I need an lawyer?
There is no “right” answer to this question. Each family’s circumstances are unique to their situation, so there is no universal answer to the question of whether you should employ an lawyer prior to attending dispute resolution. However, we recommend to most people that they obtain legal advice prior to the dispute resolution session. An lawyer can explain the process, the implications of the parenting decisions you make, and advise you with regard to your particular situation.
Additionally, the law allows parties to seek legal advice and attempt negotiations through lawyers before you dispute resolution session. You may address and settle all child related issues without having to attend dispute resolution – this is only a requirement if you plan to involve the courts.
What can I expect at dispute resolution?
Dispute resolution can take several forms. If you hire a private practitioner to conduct your family dispute resolution, it may take place at a law firm, or other corporate location. However, if hiring an individual who is a private practitioner is beyond your financial reach, you can get access to dispute resolution services at Family Resource Centres or other community based organisations.
Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) are government sanctioned dispute resolution forums that encourage parents to focus on the needs of the children and reach a workable parenting arrangement. The ultimate goal of the FRC is the same as with other forms of dispute resolution – to reach an agreement without having to go to court. While FRC staff can’t provide legal advice they are trained to deal with relevant issues such as family violence and child abuse, and they can provide you with information about private practice lawyers as well as Legal Aid as well and other community legal centres.
Should you choose the FRC route, your experience may vary depending on the location you select. Each FRC is independently owned and operated and thus the intake process as well as the dispute resolution model can be different at each centre. However, the one aspect of all FRCs that is consistent at all locations is that your first three hours of services are free.
Once you have selected your family dispute resolution forum, you will be asked to sign an agreement confirming your understanding of the process. There will be a joint session, with opportunities to take a “time-out” and have one on one time with the practitioner. If your issues are not able to be resolved in your initial meeting, then you will have to schedule a subsequent session to make another attempt to resolve the issues.
Everything said during the dispute resolution process is strictly confidential, and is not admissible in open court or other proceedings, unless it relates to child abuse or the parties have consented.
Other Avenues of Dispute Resolution
Arbitration is a type of dispute resolution in which a trained professional evaluates the evidence and makes an independent determination regarding the dispute. This process is appealing to some because the parties are able to control the process by selecting the arbitrator as well as the method and timing of arbitration. More often than not, an arbitration hearing can occur significantly sooner than the courts would reach your case, and the process tends to be more private. A list of qualified arbitrators may be found at www. familylawsection.org.au.
Collaborative law is another option for dispute resolution, and allows for parties and lawyers to meet in four-way meetings. This process permits the parties to stay directly involved in the communication and negotiations. A major distinction with collaborative law is that the parties and lawyers agree in advance not to go to court.