Covid 19 coronavirus: Family, divorce lawyers report surge in demand

Divorce lawyers are facing a post-lockdown surge in marriages breaking down.

Lawyers up and down the country say demand for mediation as couples separate has never been higher – one says his Auckland firm has had to “close the doors” as they can’t take on any more cases, while another in Wellington says he has seen a three or four-fold increase on two years ago.

Bastion Chambers Auckland divorce lawyer Jeremy Sutton estimated a 20 per cent increase in inquiries for divorce across the industry.

He was so busy he was no longer able to take on new cases.

“I’m not taking on any new clients this month, and that’s been happening regularly throughout Covid – we’ve closed the doors,” he said.

Wellington barrister and mediator Chris LaHatte said he was also much busier than two years ago.

“I know most family lawyers are extremely busy at the moment. There seems to be almost an unlimited amount of work out there,” he said.

“I’m not quite sure why that is, but the whole Covid, political events, those sorts of things just add to the tension in people’s lives.”

“And if you’re worried about things like that you’re more likely to worry about your relationship.”

His increased caseload was particularly reflected in the volume of family mediations, with three to five on the go at any one time.

“I’m doing a lot more family mediations, by a factor of probably three or four times, since two years ago,” he said.

“There was a record month in May for mediation fees … there were a lot of mediations that month but there were also a lot of complex mediations.”

LaHatte was unsure if this was entirely because of the impacts of Covid-19. There was also an increasing trend of family court judges sending more cases to mediation – the process of settling divorce matters outside the courts.

But he believed Covid might have exposed the fragility of marriages already on the edge.

“It probably pushed a few because of all the additional tension people were under was sometimes enough to spark the separation,” he said.

Topics like vaccination and Covid-conspiracy theories had also contributed to several relationships breaking down.

“One of the things I always ask these days in parenting agreements as the mediator is the vaccination clause – what do the parties say about the children being vaccinated?”

Throughout lockdown, parenting arrangements for couples already separated had been one of the biggest concerns for his clients.

On top of learning to do Zoom mediations throughout lockdown, junior barrister Jessica Cooper said there had also been an increase in shuttle mediations – in which the two parties were separated between two rooms, and the mediator travelled back and forth with proposals.

“The one thing we’ve had a lot of this year is shuttle mediations … a lot of them being quite lengthy as well,” Cooper said.

“I don’t know if that’s because we’re getting more complex cases or whether it’s the ones with the family violence concerns.”

Sutton said that although New Zealand’s lockdown was short, disruptions to a normal work routine and being confined in one place had affected many marriages, regardless of their demographic.

“Their balance has turned upside down a little bit and there is a lot more conflict between them because they can’t hide,” he said.

“You’ve got different parenting styles that you can definitely see during the lockdown – they’re in the same household.”

Issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and mental health were also exacerbated during lockdown, but Sutton said the financial uncertainty of Covid could also be a factor in keeping couples together.

“The ones that are financially struggling, living week to week, those kinds of people are probably going to be reluctant to separate at this time, even for those mental health or drug and alcohol-related issues.”

“Really people are more inquiring about what the situation is and what the options are … they want just to explore what it would be like.”

Even post lockdown, the absence of “protective factors” such as extended family or holidays could make couples vulnerable to breakdown.

“Previously there used to be what we would call protective factors – those things that will protect a person in situations of stress or when things go wrong,” Sutton said.

“Let’s say at Christmas time it might have been a protective factor between a husband and wife that one of their families would enter their Christmas situation as well, and kind of calm things down.”

“During Covid there wasn’t those protective factors … we were kind of exposed to everything.”

As divorces in New Zealand could only take place two years after a couple was separated, Sutton said it might be another year before the full impacts of Covid on marriages could be seen reflected in statistics.

He also estimated a high proportion of people who got divorced never saw a lawyer.

“But [Covid] is kind of causing people to stop and think, what do they want to do in terms of the future,” he said.

“What common interests do people have?”

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