RECENT comments about a protracted 10-year family law property dispute in the Melbourne Family Court is a timely reminder to all family lawyers that a lawyer’s role is to be part of the solution and not part of the problem”, said Levitt Robinson Family Law Division Director Ms Louise Cassar.
The comments, made by Justice Christine Dawe in the case of Strahan v Strahan  FamCA 1150, follow the suggestion at a recent family law Seminar in Sydney by Judge Robyn Sexton that a best practice guideline for family lawyers was not “to get emotionally involved” and just “parrot clients’ instructions”, but to “push back”.
“Judge Sexton was talking about lawyers having the courage and conviction to say to their clients “No, I am not doing that as it’s based on emotion and not in your best interests,” Ms Cassar said.
“Our job is not to be used by our clients as a means to ventilate their emotional position, it’s about advising clients to understand what is better for them legally, emotionally and financially – this is what is called pushing back.”
Ms Cassar said if family lawyers did not follow Judge Sexton’s best practice guidelines then untenable and disastrous consequences would continue to occur in family law proceedings such as what has occurred in the Melbourne registry and attracted the comments from Family Court Judge Dawe.
In Strahan, the wife had previously sought $2 million a year in spousal maintenance, citing a large weekly budget for food, hairdressing, clothes and shoes. But in 2012 Justice Dawe ordered that the maintenance be cut to $26,021 a month. The wife had received part payment of her share of a property pool totalling at least $12.7m. At that stage, her bills from lawyers and forensic accountants were estimated at more than $10m, with her husband believed to have incurred costs twice as large.
The Australian Taxation Office has previously intervened in the case, claiming the husband owed a debt of more than $70m. The couple married in 1994 and separated in about January 2005.
Justice Dawe noted that the couple’s son, now 18, had spent much of his life as the subject of legal proceedings.
“Family lawyers should not be mere process passengers where they let the process dictate the agenda. They should be committed to quick resolution of matters so that the parties are saved from great emotional and financial cost,” said Ms Cassar.
“There needs to be more emphasis on achieving settlement quickly as opposed to letting the process take over which in turn creates unwarranted and at times excessive legal fees.”
Recently, Levitt Robinson settled a $40 million family property claim within six months of being involved and with legal fees less than 1 per cent of the claim.
“By bringing a commercial law attitude to such disputes, matters can be settled quickly and for drastically reduced fees. This can only be achieved if family lawyers “push back” and seek a quick and just outcome, rather than just racking-up fees through a protracted emotionally-based litigation,” Ms Cassar said.