Assisting Bushfire Recovery
In February 2009 I was involved in a Volunteer support team organised by the Law Institute of Victoria in Kinglake about a week after the fires to provide general legal advice and support survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires.
The role was well intentioned but did not really address the real priorities facing survivors at that time as the people we saw were in a state of shock as a result of what they had just experienced. They neither required our assistance then or were in any physical or mental state to make major decisions about their future at that time. The demands of immediate rescue and recovery places higher priorities on urgent needs and it is generally seen as pretty poor form to refuse a bushfire survivor their urgent needs. That came later from our institutions.
Peak bodies for insurance companies, banks and financial institutions tend to make (out of character) very positive community supporting messages at the time of the bushfire and in the month or so thereafter. They, however, often return to type after the publicity has died down and stonewall claimants or borrowers until disputes are forced into litigation. Planning authorities and local government tend to follow similar patterns often clashing with bushfire victims over rebuilding permits and tree clearing and fire prevention issues.
The character and demographics of many of the people in areas affected by bushfires also is a very relevant factor. As a totally unfair generalisation, these outer fringe or rural areas attract the less wealthy, the DIY and owner builders, and foster a pretty strong anti-establishment and anti-authority culture. Is there any surprise when disputation occurs?
A professional qualified and experienced mediator can assist.
The Relationship Toll
As a family law and family violence practitioner I also experienced another disturbing result of the bushfires.
The loss of a home, the destruction of a property and the injury or even death of a family member is a warning sign that should be heeded of potential family disputation. While it is heartening to see those who bonded and became closer through adversity they were in the minority, in my opinion, and for many that Bushfire was a ticking time bomb for family breakup.
Think of it this way. When all the special tokens of a relationship, the things a couple have worked jointly to achieve are destroyed in an unexpected natural disaster many people want to take the opportunity to start again in a new direction, often not with the same partner. To have a family breakup after experiencing the effects of the disaster has the potential to trigger depressive and mental health issues.
Re-negotiating Family Law Agreements
While these things take time to manifest of more immediate concern are those affected by the bushfires who have already separated at the time of the bushfire and are living with or spending time with children who also live with their former partner.
A bushfire can change your capacity to house or care for your self and your children and the parent who lives in suburbia may be reluctant, for the child’s perceived best interests, to enable contact in the aftermath of bushfire. They can well argue that the special circumstances of the bushfire damage may justify ignoring existing court orders. In a court system where practically no-one is ever sanctioned for breaching orders more than a judicial talking to some parents may interrupt children’s time spent with the other parent based on the disruption to housing arrangements, the latent danger of the bushland setting or any other real or perceived issues.
Both parents needs are different and are motivated by a different view of the world, but the dispute is very real and important to everyone involved. Here too it’s best not to let things get so bad that Family Court is the only option. A qualified Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner (Family Mediator) can help sort out what’s best for the short and long term interests of your children and yourselves. These problems will be growing at this time and assistance is available.
Mediation Institute can Help
Mediation Institute is a large, national member association of mediators, lawyers and Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners many of whom have offered their services to assist bushfire victims in negotiation and to provide an independent mediator to assist parties resolve disputes that have been triggered by the bushfires.
We have received offers from volunteers who are not MI members, and once we have confirmed their professional qualifications, we welcome their offers of assistance and add them to the panel.
We are willing to coordinate the allocation of a suitably qualified mediator to assist clients of local recovery agencies with the majority of our practitioners more than capable of providing phone and web based support for those who are in more remote areas.
Paul Kenna Law is General Manager of Mediation Institute and is a mediator, FDRP, Family Law and Family Violence Solicitor and advocate.
Mediation Institute are a state finalist in the 2023 Telstra Best of Business Awards in the Accelerating Women Category.