13 March 2023
Wave of COVID divorces hit the courts
This article was originally published by Jess Feyder for Lawyers Weekly (13 March 2023).
A record wave of marriage break-ups that occurred through COVID-19 has hit Australian courts. Partners, principals, and lawyers from family firms discuss the reasons and how lawyers should advise.
A record 49,625 couples in Australia filed for divorce during 2020 and 2021, marking an 8 per cent increase over 12 months.
A National Legal Aid survey taken in the depths of the COVID-19 lockdowns further highlighted the issue, showing that one in 12 couples were looking to separate.
Bartier Perry partner Fiona Hoad commented on the phenomenon: “Distance keeps many relationships together, so lockdowns that forced couples into close proximity — a key reason we’re now seeing a wave of separations.”
“There’s no doubt we’re seeing a separation surge as a result of COVID,” she said, “that does put pressure on the court system, with delays only exacerbating the emotional distress of a separation”.
As the government looks at further reforms to the Family Law Act, Ms Hoad noted that the changes implemented in September 2021, focusing on resolution over conflict, were having a significant and positive impact in easing the backlog of cases.
“Mediation or a form of dispute resolution is now compulsory and must happen before you can commence legal proceedings, and what you’re seeing is that it helps couples focus appropriately on any key issues in dispute, be they property, money, or living arrangements for children,” she commented.
In addition, the introduction of senior judicial registrars who can hear and determine interim financial and parenting matters and deal with urgent matters has taken pressure off couples and the court, she elaborated.
“If we didn’t have that new layer of judicial decision-maker, couples would be waiting months to get before the court and have their interim matters dealt with,” Ms Hoad illuminated.
Hayder Shkara, principal at Justice Family Lawyers, spoke with Lawyers Weekly about the trend.
“There has been a dramatic increase in divorces since COVID,” he noted.
“If you look at the stats, there was a huge slowdown of divorce cases during the 2021–2022 period, so those that wanted to get divorced probably did not because of practical reasons like relocating or finding another residence during lockdown.
“That build-up has resulted in a surge of divorces in 2022 and 2023.”
"Our divorce lawyers are experiencing high levels of enquires that relate to financial stress and control,” he added. “The cost-of-living crisis is causing distress within families and causing a lot of couples to separate.”
Donna Nguyen, a lawyer at Unified Lawyers, cited some reasons for the heightened rate of divorces. “The pandemic brought about a great deal of uncertainty, anxiety and stress.
“Many people also lost their jobs or experienced reduced income, which created financial strains in the relationship,” she explained. “These stressors can lead to conflicts, disagreements, and an overall breakdown in communication.”
“I have also observed an increase in family violence and social isolation due to the lockdowns and COVID-19,” Ms Nguyen told Lawyers Weekly. “The uncertainty of the pandemic led some individuals to turn to drugs or alcohol, which can exacerbate violent behaviour resulting in separation.”
Tania Sakla from Unified Lawyers commented: “As a family lawyer, who had experience in family law prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have definitely seen an increase in separation matters throughout and post the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“People were also restricted from engaging in their usual daily activities and hobbies, impacting on their overall wellbeing.
“Post-COVID-19, many people have not returned to their pre-COVID-19 routine,” she explained.
“This may be due to financial stressors, increase of working-from-home requirements and in some cases, due to changes in their children’s behaviours, including heightened separation anxiety as a result of the pandemic.”
Ms Nguyen and Ms Sakla both described how lawyers should advise clients.
Ms Nguyen commented: “Lawyers should prioritise the children’s best interests and assist clients with navigating the complexities of co-parenting post-separation.”
“Lawyers may also need to be more creative when negotiating settlements as the pandemic has led to economic uncertainty,” Ms Nguyen asserted.
“Post-pandemic, we are observing increased interest rates, higher cost of living, and there may be permanent changes in financial circumstances for clients arising from the pandemic, which will need to be taken into consideration by lawyers.”
Family lawyers can cope with increases in divorce post-pandemic in a few ways, Ms Nguyen explained, by embracing technology, like using video conferencing, online document sharing, electronic witnessing of signatures, and other tools to communicate with clients and conduct legal proceedings remotely.
Lawyers can also stay up to date on legal changes, like laws and regulations that may affect divorce proceedings, she said.
“When advising clients, we may need to be more sensitive to client’s needs and be more empathetic,” Ms Nguyen added.
Ms Sakla said: “In this environment, family lawyers need to embody a more empathetic and client-focused approach in family law matters.
“It is important to consider the financial and personal struggles that clients are facing and encourage creative resolutions to keep matters cost-effective and preserve family relationships within the separation.”