Cate Banks provides a summary of her research into the different meanings of the child-focused ideal for family dispute resolution practitioners and lawyers, and discusses how these differences play out in practice.
The family law reforms introduced in the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006 (Cth) were designed "to change the culture of family breakdown from litigation to co-operation" (Ruddock, 2005, p. 110) and to bring a greater child-focus system-wide in the settlement of disputes over children.
Adopting a child-focused approach for Family Dispute Resolution practitioners (FDR practitioners) may not mean a significant difference in the way they interact with clients but it challenges the orthodoxy of legal practice where a lawyer acts for a parent (or other party to the proceedings not including the child) and owes a duty to that client and to the court. Consistent with previous research (Banks & Hook, 2005), most family lawyers interviewed in this study see themselves as child-focused and believe they have a role in improving the quality of post-separation relationships between parents by attenuating conflict, developing workable arrangements and, where necessary, by referring clients to other family law professionals, such as counsellors, psychologists and mediators. However two kinds of problems emerge. First, just as there is a range of different stakeholders in the family law system, there are also different "visions" of what it means to be child-focused. In addition there are clear constraints on achieving a universal ideal of child-focused practice because of the different roles, perspectives and expectations of those stakeholders. This article provides a snapshot of how the different meanings of the child-focused ideal applied by FDR practitioners and lawyers play out in practice and provides a glimpse of what appear to be the most dominant constraints in achieving their visions.