Director celebrates 30 year work anniversary
June 18, 2020
Q&A with co-director Lucy Thomas on the eve of her 30th work anniversary at leading Western Australian Family Law firm Paterson & Dowding
Lucy grew up on a farm near Waroona and is an Accredited Family Law Specialist, Independent Children’s Lawyer (ICL) and sought after Mediator. She started her career with Paterson & Dowding in 1990, and is a prominent family lawyer in Western Australia, nominated by her peers as a pre-eminent lawyer in Parenting, Custody and Children’s Matters and a Recommended Leading Family & Divorce Lawyer in Doyles.
Q: Did you always want to be a family lawyer and why?
Yes because I am very much a people person and I have always been passionate about minimising the fallout of relationship breakdowns for families, both financially and emotionally by promoting child focused decisions and behaviour.
Q: Over 30 years you must have seen many changes in the Family Law landscape. What are the biggest changes or trends you have observed in family law?
Technological change has been enormous. When I commenced practice in 1988, there were no computers. All communications were typed on typewriters and if something was really urgent it went by fax, usually late on a Friday afternoon! I now have 3 computer screens on my desk and every time I look up there are a bundle of new emails in my inbox. Many practitioners are now operating on a paperless basis and the court is heading that way.
In the area of parenting disputes, there is much greater reliance on the input of social scientists (clinical psychologists, social workers, family therapists and counsellors) by both practitioners and the court, both in terms of the provision of expert evidence but also for therapeutic interventions for children and parents. Family therapy has been a growth area in recent years as well as co-parenting programs designed to assist parents in their communication and decision-making. There are now a number of Apps available to assist parties with their post separation communication and co-parenting.
Sadly, for the children of our community the stand out social issues affecting them, are mental health problems and substance abuse by their parents, particularly the use of Methamphetamine. My experience is that where substance abuse is an issue, family violence generally follows. Speaking with children who have witnessed family violence is a very sobering experience. Aside from providing legal advice, I find that I am increasingly referring clients, with good reason, to other related stakeholders including clinical psychologists, therapists and the like, to address issues that have been adversely impacting upon themselves, their personal relationships and most importantly their children.
On the financial front, there have been some landmark legal developments since I commenced practice, including superannuation splitting legislation, which has allowed for greater flexibility when dividing the financial pie, and also resulted in more equitable outcomes for many parties. De-facto legislation has also been instrumental in affording parties’ access to the Family Court to pursue financial claims previously not readily available to them.
One thing that has not changed is the number of Judges in our Court. We have the same number as when the Family Court of Western Australia was set up in 1975. Given the enormous increase in our population and other drivers in terms of relationship breakdown, the court has become increasingly overwhelmed in recent years, leading to a significant blowout of delays where matters can be caught up in the Court for years. This has lead to a significant increase in mediation which has proved to be successful in resolving the majority of both parenting and financial disputes. Arbitration is another alternative to litigation which has been attracting greater attention in recent time.
Q: If you could give your clients one piece of advice, what would it be?
For those with children, it is not the separation that impacts upon their children most, but rather how the parents respond to the separation. Unresolved parental conflict robs children of their childhood and all too often meaningful relationships with significant family members. The earlier parents can adjust to the separation, the better the outcome for both themselves and their children.
Q: What do you find the most rewarding part of your job?
Undoubtedly, my role as a mediator, assisting parties to resolve their disputes, and seeing the weight lift off their shoulders as they are freed up to focus on a future away from lawyers’ offices and the Court. The financial and emotional cost of litigation should never be underestimated.
One of the stand out successes in recent time has been the work undertaken by the Dispute Resolution unit at Legal Aid WA where late intervention mediation conferences are conducted by very experienced mediators in some of the most complex parenting disputes before the court resulting in a very high settlement rate and removing matters from the Court system, where in some cases they may have been languishing for years to the detriment of all concerned. My regular involvement as chairperson of these conferences has been highly rewarding.
I also greatly enjoy my role as an ICL where I hope that I can make a difference to at least some children’s lives. In this role I get to facilitate settlements where possible and enjoy the privilege of meeting children from all walks of life. Over the years, I have gained many valuable insights from children and their perspectives on their parent’s separation. I also thoroughly enjoy working collaboratively with a range of child related professionals, including, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and counsellors.
In more recent years, I have developed a growing practice in Surrogacy arrangements, which can serve as a refreshing change to disputes between parties over their children and money. The surrogacy journey can be lengthy and quite challenging for clients, due to the high level of legislative regulation. Playing a part in a successful outcome is pretty exciting, especially when you receive a visit in the office from some very proud new parents holding their precious bundle of joy.
Q: What achievements are you most proud of?
Managing to maintain a full time working career and having two wonderful children along the way. Gaining accreditation in 1994 when I was still breastfeeding my eldest child was both a surprise and a thrill. I am also immensely proud of the firm that I have grown up with, joining as a baby lawyer in June 1990 and working my way up to becoming first a partner, and now a co-director. Over the years, I have enjoyed the company of some fabulous work colleagues, and am forever indebted to my mentors, who have since retired from both practice and the firm.
Q: What advice would you give junior family lawyers?
Family lawyers have a real responsibility to minimise the fallout for families, both financially and emotionally. Whilst there may be situations where we are required to robustly advocate for our clients, there is no place for combative and aggressive conduct. We should always have an eye for a solution and be mindful of the emotional and financial cost of the alternatives. We perform a very important educative role with our clients in terms of promoting child focused decisions and behaviour.