Chart a safe path through family disputes
Australia’s family law system can be slow, expensive and emotionally draining for people in already challenging situations, such as disputes over parenting arrangements or property settlement. People can spend years waiting for their matter to be dealt with in court. And it’s those unexpected delays and costs that can add to or create new tensions between disputing parties, says Gillian Coote, a family law specialist and principal of Coote Family Lawyers.
“The current system, with its delays and the horror and expense of a Family Court hearing, creates power imbalances in ways that are sometimes unexpected,” Coote says. For example, a parent with primary care of the children during a separation period will often have advantages over the parent who does not. Similarly, the partner in the relationship with control of the assets at separation can retain an advantage, simply because of the time it takes to get to court. As a result, Coote says, the best family lawyers will work with clients to resolve disputes quickly and out of court. Coote would know. She has learned the ins and outs of the system during her 30 years of experience working as a family lawyer in Melbourne. In 2003, she started her own firm from her dining room table in Camberwell. And in the years since, Coote Family Lawyers has grown into one of Melbourne’s largest family law firms, one regularly recognised by the peer-reviewed Doyle’s Guide.
The firm employs 17 lawyers, and offers access to a network of specialist services, including conveyancers, financial planners and psychologists. Coote has been consistently named as one of the top family lawyers in Melbourne. She is recognised for her ability in matters where complex commercial, estate planning and taxation matters are relevant as part of the overall resolution process. Coote says the most important part of her job is helping clients feel confident about what can be a confusing and confronting process. ‘‘I really think empowerment is the issue,” she says. “It’s about finding the best in every person and trying to get them to rise to the challenge. “That’s what I tend to stress when I talk to clients. How can they help themselves make the best of this?” Clients seek family lawyers when they are at their most vulnerable.
They may be bewildered by the machinations of the family law system or left reeling by a relationship breakdown. They may be thinking about a pre-nuptial agreement to protect themselves in new relationships. Coote says she tries to offer her clients more than advice. She shows them how they can use her understanding of the law to help themselves through this chapter of their lives. “I give them a range of outcomes, and I always tell them what I think should be the answer,” she says. “They may not get everything they want. But I try to get them a result that is about right, without the trauma of drawn-out time in court. ‘‘What is most important, though, is to remind people they have skills, and that there is a life after divorce. Most people, after 20 years of marriage, feel their life is defined by the role they have played in that relationship. Seeing a life for themselves independently of that is not easy. I really hope I help.”