Cutbacks to free Family Court counselling

JODY HOPKINSON
Last updated 17:10 25/02/2013
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OPINION: I know a ton of people who have taken up the Family Court's free six counselling sessions through Relationship Services.

Currently under the Family Court system separating or couples thinking of separating can do six free counselling sessions. Under proposed changes to the Family Court the six free sessions are to be axed to just one.

Currently many of those who do the counselling do it because they NEED to, and they do them, quite frankly, because they are free.

Relationship services counselling is one of the few times people who normally wouldn't go to someone to talk about their problems, will go. Being free and a service a lot of us knows about, means it's popular.

One friend who went through all six sessions said to me. "I was very hard (sic) with my husband as he had cheated on me. I felt dead. I was not going back. He had to organise the counselling sessions and it wasn't at the first session but at the third when I realised we might be able to get through our troubles and make some big changes His organising the sessions and then the work we did with the counsellor are the big reasons behind us still being together. It changed us...for the better."

No, I'm not saying these counselling sessions have healed a thousand marriages. Not everyone's off to renew their vows. But the sessions are a way of perhaps working towards a parenting order. Or a way of avoiding more costs to the couple AND the country because they're able to work out how to separate and divorce without going to court. Counselling allows a couple to get some of their bitterness/concerns/anger out in a safe environment. And to perhaps get to another stage in the break up without going up before Judge Judy (or the New Zealand version...Judge Marge?)

The planned cuts "...will see access to legal representation restricted, silence children, impose financial barriers on parents and lead to "bloody" legal battles and a spike in domestic violence...."(according to welfare agencies and experts quoted in an article on Stuff.

"If the proposed changes are given the green light, families will have to go through the Family Disputes Resolution (FDR) Service, without legal representation, and foot the $897 bill (the cost will only be subsidised for low-income earners)...".

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How will women who are being beaten by their husbands cope when they are up against their husband in a court? How will those with literacy issues or mental health issues cope with filling out forms and managing the court system? How many people can afford $900? I think anyone outside of those who work within the legal system can find it daunting. Let alone during a stressful or troubled time.

Currently, our Family Court is world-renowned. It does everything from provide a lawyer for the child, mediation and protection orders, through to helping with adoptions, compulsory treatment orders and support through separation and divorce.

Family court services remaining easily accessible is especially important for women trying to escape violence. And I think in the day to day stigmatizing of single mums via beneficiary bashing, we forget that some women leave relationships for extremely good reasons.

They leave because their home lives are hell! Sometimes the man they are married to hits her across the face so her face smacks against the wall and the kids don't even cry because they know they'll get in trouble if they do. A woman's husband or partner may control her through calling her bitch or ridiculing what she wears, how she thinks and what she says.

Sometimes women MUST leave to stay alive. They have to leave so their kids won't lose an eye. We don't have the fifth highest rate in the OECD of death of our children by violence, without there being real time violence happening behind closed doors here...a lot.

It takes a woman on average 14 times to leave a partner who hurts them. Legal representation needs to be available to women in these situations. Women who leave abuse have to be incredibly brave. Let the Family Court continue to support them.

Hopefully submissions against some of the proposed changes to the Family Court in relation to free access to counselling, arbitration, and the $900 fee are heard. Ensuring the Family Court's services stay available to all of us going through familial disputes is important. And for those women and their children escaping violence, life saving.

- Essential Mums

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