A brave new world: 18 months of working with men in the family courts

In a place where tradition and protocols reign supreme, funding for new programs that change the way judges, lawyers and court staff all work together, is rarely granted. When the Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS) commenced in May 2017, many in the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court of Australia were unsure who these new workers sitting in the back of the court room were and just where they fitted into the court process. Fast forward 18 months to Thursday 15 November at a FASS information session and it is words like “invaluable” and “amazing” that are used by senior lawyers and judges in the room to describe FASS’ impact.

FASS is a national scheme operating in each state and territory in Australia and is funded the Australian Government to support anyone who has experienced, used or is alleged to have used family violence. Both No to Violence and safe steps have staff working in the FASS pilot program in Melbourne. The FASS workers from No to Violence are trained men’s family violence practitioners, whose primary role is to engage men affected by family violence (including men who are victims of family violence, as well as men who have allegations of family violence made against them in their family law matter).

Speaking on a panel with safe steps and duty lawyers, Shane from No to Violence, says he uses “de-escalation strategies for agitated men who are involved in family violence matters” and “motivates his clients to take ownership of their behaviour.” Shane makes it clear “we don’t collude with clients. We hold them to account for their behaviour and always look for an outcome that best serves the children involved.”

Duty lawyer, Rebecca of Women’s Legal Service Victoria, recalls a situation when she represented a father who wouldn’t follow court orders to take a hair follicle test and contact a men’s behaviour change provider (MBCP). The judge was running out of patience and the client was risking the opportunity to see his child going forward. Rebecca referred him to Shane for a chat. “Male perpetrators don’t always want to take advice from a female duty lawyer. Having a men’s FASS worker here at court can make the process a lot easier for me and the client” says Rebecca.

Shane explained the importance of the court orders and talked the client around to make the calls. “What he hadn’t achieved in six months, we achieved in 30 minutes together. He now had a motivation to do the program and had some insights into his behaviour.”

Judge Harland from the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, says clients come to lawyers with a range of issues, many of which are non-legal. “FASS provides a more in-depth service for clients that may need support for family violence, housing, mental health or drug and alcohol issues” says Judge Harland. “It can make a big difference having someone like Shane there to go up quietly and tap a man on the shoulder. It can be the difference between a client storming off and not coming back, and a client storming off and coming back. Clients feel listened to and they start to engage.”

To cap off the information session, panellists were asked what they’d learnt most from working in the FASS pilot program. While Shane had learnt to use his new knowledge about the courts to debunk his client’s gripes about men’s unfair treatment from the legal system, Ahalya, a duty lawyer from Victoria Legal Aid, had taken away something entirely different.

Working in a collaborative manner has allowed family violence support workers and duty lawyers to observe and share their skills with one another. “Working with Shane and observing the way he is able to deescalate men has assisted me in furthering the development of my non-legal skills to support male clients” said Ahalya.

In less than two years, FASS has already set a fine precedent for the success of holistic services that bring down barriers between court staff, family violence support workers and most of all, the vulnerable families seeking their support.

For more information about FASS, visit the Victoria Legal Aid website.

If you or someone you know is causing problems for their relationships and family, please call the Men’s Referral Service – 1300 766 491 or chat online now.