Coronavirus Shutdown Causing ‘Perfect Storm’ For Divorce Lawyers

One family law firm in Australia is reporting a sharp rise in the number of cases, amid fears the coronavirus pandemic will lead to higher divorce rates in the country.

Courtney Mullen, head of legal at Australian Family Lawyers (AF Legal) in Canberra, said the coronavirus pandemic has created a “perfect storm” of stress for families and could be leading to the increased number of cases the firm has seen.

AF Legal said it’s had a record quarter, with 50 percent more new case openings on the year to date than last year.

The firm recorded its second highest revenue month of the financial year in March, and saw a 48 percent increase in revenue in the three months period up till March 31 than in the prior corresponding period.

Mullen said the Christmas and January period is always a very busy time of year, but believes the devastating bushfires seen across large parts of Australia over summer also placed pressure on families even before the coronavirus hit.

“We saw it initially I think with the bushfires as well, some really unique cases coming out where you’ve got the perfect storm of stress. You’ve got financial stress, emotional stress, and you’ve got kids who are suffering as a result of that,” Mullen said.

“All three of those are definitely present with the current social distancing and isolation.”

Canberra lawyer, profile photo of Courtney Mullen

Mullen said these factors may also anecdotally be linked to the worrying increase in clients reporting allegations of family violence over the past few months.

AF Legal said almost half (46 percent) of the new cases it took on in March involved some element of family violence. It’s a sharp rise from January where the number of new cases that had family violence links was 36 percent.

“We are getting a high percentage of inquiries from families in crisis not being able to escape the stresses that are existing in family dynamics now and having problems with former partners or recently-former partners to leave the house,” Mullen explained.

“It’s a perfect storm of stress for families at the moment I think that has got to be contributing to the increase in allegations of family violence. “

Prioritise Your Safety

Mullen said her first advice to clients in the current environment is to prioritise their safety, including by connecting with support networks and family violence crisis services.

“My concern is that a lot of people are going to stay and we are going to see an increase in family violence perpetrated,” she said, adding that some refuges and crisis accommodation services were already seeing immense strain, making it difficult for people to leave their partners.

“I think the pressure cooker is starting, in terms of some of the inquiries we have been getting in the last couple of weeks we are seeing that spike in allegations of family violence and I think time will tell if the services support people enough to leave of people decide to stay put.”

“I think that definitely at the end of this we will see another spike in separations when people actually can be comfortable enough to leave.”

But not all law firms have seen the same trends. Stephanie Doyle, a partner at Lander & Rogers’ Family and Relationship Law group, said the firm had not noticed an increase in new clients or increased allegations among new clients of family violence since the outbreak started.

But the firm did notice an increase in inquiries from existing clients following the implementation of social isolation measured by the government earlier on in the crisis, Doyle said.

Those clients were seeking advice and reassurance as to how their existing parenting and property matters would be affected by COVID-19, she added.

‘The reality is there’s a bit of a lag’

Mullen says the real impact on divorce rates in Australia from the pandemic may not be revealed for at least another year.

She said in Australia, a married couple must be separated for 12 months before they can lodge an application for divorce.

“The reality is there’s a bit of a lag,” Mullen explained.

“I think the feeling among lawyers, or certainly speaking for myself, is we are going to see¬† spike in divorce filings in the coming year or two years as a result of people separating now and not being able to file their divorces later.”

Mullen said it wouldn’t be the first time Australia has seen a jump in divorces in the wake of a crisis.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2009, a year after the Global Financial Crisis hit, there was a 4.7 percent rise in the number of divorces granted in Australia compared to the previous year.

It was the first time the number of divorces in the country had increased since 2001, according to the ABS.

A year later in 2010, the number of divorces increased again by 1.6 percent compared to 2009.

Doyle said factors like working from home, home-schooling of children and caring for children without respite could lead to couples finding themselves being “romantically crowded”.

“It is certainly true that in times of economic or social hardship, relationships can experience increasing levels of stress,” she said.

Doyle also referenced reports from Wuhan in China — where the outbreak first started– which found there was a significant rise in separation and divorces among local couples after the imposed lockdown there was lifted.

“Chinese officials claim that this social phenomenon was due to self-isolated couples spending too much time together. It is not yet clear if this will also be the trend in Australia,” Doyle said.

“However, if someone is experiencing stress in their relationship as a result of the current climate, it is important that they seek expert advice.”

Thinking Differently 

Mullen said the current coronavirus climate has changed the landscape of family law in the country and put a strain on services with some court closures leading to limited ability for people to walk-in for advice.

“Family lawyers are having to think differently about how they service these clients and I think that need that is coming to us from what clients want from us is more of that ongoing support,” she said.

“Accessing services is difficult and not straightforward and information is not as easy to find.”

Mullen said AF Legal was tailoring its own service to meet this changed demand by offering phone consultations with senior lawyers at a reduced rate.

“I would like to see the family law profession follow suit and sort of try and help as many people through this as we can.”

Doyle said Lander & Rogers was adapting to the COVID-19 crisis by providing advice to clients via telephone, Skype, FaceTime and Microsoft Teams.

“There has been an increase in the amount of telephone inquiries from new and old clients needing advice and reassurance about the implementation of their parenting or property matters; or seeking advice as to how the COVID-19 situation may affect their matter,” she said.

Original published on 10Daily – 20 April 2020
Coronavirus Shutdown Causing ‘Perfect Storm’ For Divorce Lawyers

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