Feminist writing in the 80’s and 90’s questioned whether family mediation could be a fair process resulting in just outcomes where there was a history of domestic violence. Informed and inspired by the work of some of Australia’s great legal feminist thinkers – such as Hilary Astor, Kathy Mack, Reg Graycar and Jenny Morgan, my own stance was, for at least a decade, quite critical about the efficacy of the use of informal dispute resolution processes in such circumstances. This stance is documented in, for example, ‘Mediation and the Art of Power (Im)Balancing’ (1996) 12 QUT Law Journal 264; ‘Family Law Mediation: Process Imbalances Women Should Be Aware of Before They Take Part’ (1998) 14 QUT Law Journal 23; ‘Federal Family Law Reform in 2005: The Problems and Pitfalls for Women and Children of an Increased Emphasis on Post-Separation Informal Dispute Resolution’ (2005) 5 QUT Law and Justice Journal 28; and ‘Using the Feminist Critique of Mediation to Explore “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” Implications for Women of the Introduction of Mandatory Family Dispute Resolution in Australia’ (2006) 20(5) Australian Journal of Family Law 45.
My work as a feminist dispute resolution academic has always been informed by my involvement (as a volunteer since 1993) with Women’s Legal Service in Brisbane (WLS). A Service like Women’s is very special – the staff do amazing work every day advocating for justice for vulnerable women, specializing in complex family matters and domestic violence. At Women’s, we are committed to respecting the lived experience of the women we serve. This sometimes means questioning whether polemical theoretical feminist stances are supporting or hindering the cause of advocating for justice for them in a real sense.
In the mid to late 2000’s we were collectively starting to think that perhaps some of our clients who were victims of domestic violence could benefit from access to a safe form of family mediation. We believed that the standard model could not be applied or experienced fairly and with just outcomes for women and children in the particular circumstance of a history of DV. And we knew that the alternative options available to our clients (who often are unable to access legal aid as well) would almost certainly result in injustice for them: on the one hand they could negotiate over the kitchen table with the perpetrator of violence against them, and on the other hand they had the spectre of self-representation in the Family Court.
For a number of years we advocated at a national level, and in a range of forums, for a safe model of family mediation. We argued that in order to ensure that the voices of vulnerable parties can be heard in family mediation, an intentionally designed process with specific steps and strategies was necessary.
In 2009, the Australian Federal Attorney-General’s Department came to us at WLS and asked if we would design the model we were arguing for. In collaboration with many experts and friends of WLS and in consultation with a national reference group, Angela Lynch (of WLS) and I designed a model of family mediation which was called Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution (CFDR). It was an innovative, distinct, new model of family mediation with theoretical, scholarly foundations, using a multidisciplinary approach within a framework designed to ‘provide a safe, non-adversarial and child-sensitive means for parents to sort out their post-separation parenting disputes’ (R Kaspiew, J De Maio, J Deblaquiere and B Horsfall, ‘Evaluation of a Pilot of Legally Assisted and Supported Family Dispute Resolution in Family Violence Cases: Final Report (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2012), ix). CFDR was piloted between 2010 and 2012 in five different locations around Australia.
CFDR is resource intensive. But it accurately represents the level of resources that are necessary for safe mediation where there is a history of DV. CFDR involves a strong focus on preparing the parties to be ready, as a result of counselling, and legal and information sessions, for their participation in family mediation. Its coordinated and multi-disciplinary nature means that a number of professional participants are asked to bring their unique professional expertise to the model. The team of professionals required for the implementation of CFDR includes: mediators who specialise in the process and conduct of mediation; lawyers who provide each of the parents with independent legal advice, advocacy and representation; domestic violence workers who conduct specialist risk assessment, counselling and support, information and advocacy to victims of domestic violence; and men’s workers who work with a gendered analysis of violence and follow recognised best practice standards for working with perpetrators of family violence and provide counselling and advice to perpetrators in the process (R Field and A Lynch, ‘Hearing Parties’ Voices in Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution (CFDR): An Australian Pilot of a Family Mediation Model Designed for Matters Involving a History of Domestic Violence’ (2014) 36(4) The Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 392). The model also envisages a specialist children’s practitioner to be involved in matters where appropriate, along with other specialist workers, such as disability and migrant workers, depending on the needs of the family.
The pilot was evaluated by the highly respected researchers at the Australian Institute of Family Studies under the leadership of Dr Rae Kaspiew. A number of the evaluation findings affirmed the efficacy of the design elements of the model in terms of facilitating the safe and effective practice of family mediation where there is a history of domestic violence (Kaspiew et al, 2012). For example, it was found that adequate risk assessment for the parties’ safety and well-being is critical in domestic violence contexts; preparation for the parties’ participation in the process was key; and vulnerable parties have more chance of making their voice heard in mediation in the context of lawyer-assisted models, as long as those lawyers are trained adequately in dispute resolution theory and practice. In short the report said that CFDR was ‘at the cutting edge of family law practice’ because it involved the conscious application of mediation where there had been a history of family violence, in a clinically collaborative multidisciplinary and multi-agency setting.
Despite the positive evaluation and the ardent belief by many in the pilot agencies that this model is necessary in the family law system as a safety measure for victims of violence and their children post-separation, CFDR has not been rolled out due to political, resource and funding issues. This is unfortunate, and the Australian government’s failure to capitalise on the proven efficacy of CFDR jeopardises the safety and value of family dispute resolution practice in domestic violence contexts, and compromises the hearing of the voices of family violence victims and their children.
I strongly urge the Australian government to better acknowledge that the safety of victims of violence in family dispute resolution is an important family governance and justice issue. The future lives of families are ultimately at stake. The CFDR model should be reintroduced.