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Debra Parker: making break ups easier

HerCanberra Team

Family breakups. Not many sail as smoothly as a ship in calm water when it comes to settlement. But why don’t they?

Debra Parker, a partner at Watts McCray’s Canberra Office, says breaking up with a partner is never easy, but with the right process in place matters don’t need to be choppy and out-of-control.

New to Watts McCray this month, Debra is a unique entity in the capital’s family law landscape. She spent nearly a decade as the registrar at the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court before moving back to private practice. That means she’s been ‘on both sides of the bench’.

After mediating thousands of sessions as registrar, Debra knows the Family Law legal system inside and out and has developed exceptional mediation and dispute resolution skills. Importantly, she has deep insight into what could happen if a case gets to court.

‘Where possible, I want clients to avoid formal litigation, which can cost a lot of money,’ says Debra. ‘It’s better if parties reach an agreement out of Court. Money aside, clients give away their control when they go to Court. They have to take their chances because the Judge makes the ultimate decision on what will happen and then it can be too late. My preference is for clients to keep control over the outcome and work positively towards a solution all parties can live with’

Debra says family breakups are stressful enough—a mixed bag of intense emotions. And with property matters, financial matters, children and a heap of other issues to work through, it can seem impossible to know where to start.

It can also be confusing for parties to decide on the how, especially with an increasing range of options being marketed by law firms.

So what is the best path forward?

In Debra’s mind, it’s usually expert mediation. As a Nationally Accredited Mediator, Debra has worked through thousands of sessions as registrar. She knows how effective it can be to get parties to agree on an outcome and move on and live their lives. And she knows that it helps to pinpoint problems and solutions.

‘It’s natural for people to start out feeling vulnerable and afraid after relationship change or breakdown,’ says Debra. ‘Emotions are running high and people don’t know what the future will hold.’

‘As a registrar, my main role was to help people to find a compromise and help them find the value in reaching agreement,’ says Debra. ‘With compromise comes many benefits. Some benefits are intangible like peace of mind and a sense of security. Parties have to weigh up these benefits against what they might give away if they end up in Court, and that includes paying lawyers thousands of dollars to represent them. It’s really important that people have a realistic expectation of the whole experience—what they can lose and what they can gain bearing in mind what it will cost to get there.’

With expert mediation, the focus is always on resolution.

‘The parties sit together at the table or if they’re uncomfortable with that I do a “shuttle” mediation, going from one room to another as mediator,’ says Debra. ‘The parties have their lawyers present if they want them. Most people do. Sometimes other experts can be called upon to assist in the negotiations such as psychologists or accountants.

All discussions take place without prejudice to future Court proceedings and this encourages people to be frank and honest in their negotiations.’

‘People are listened to and have their views respected. A good mediator uses two-way communications—clarifying what people are saying and reflecting thoughts back to them and doing some reality testing to confirm their views so matters can inch forward,’ says Debra. ‘These are skills I’m now applying with my own clients at Watts McCray.’

Debra says it’s important for parties to also remember that a successful outcome is not always just about money. ‘It’s important for a mediator to make intangible benefits obvious, like taking stress away so children can relax knowing their parents aren’t fighting in court anymore. Even adult children are often watching,’ she says. ‘Many other benefits emerge when issues are resolved as quickly as possible and it’s satisfying to see people find security and move forward with life.’

As a mediator and lawyer, Debra helps parties identify what the obstacles are to settlement and go through each one in a calm and sensible manner. ‘It’s incredible how many issues can be resolved by just talking and going through things,’ says Debra. ‘When obstacles fall away, solutions become obvious.’

Greg McCray, a Managing Partner at Watts McCray, says Debra is like ‘having a lawyer and registrar all in one package’. ‘Debra is well known in the legal system for her strong mediation skills and her high success rate in helping resolve family law disputes,’ says Greg. ‘She’s highly respected by the system and her clients benefit from her legal knowledge and mediation skills.’

Debra gained her Bachelor of Laws at the University of Adelaide and was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the ACT in 1984. The following year she was admitted to practice in the Federal Court and the High Court of Australia. She was made a member of the Australian Institute of Family Law Arbitrators and Mediators in 1992 and is a Nationally Accredited Mediator with the Mediator Standards Board. Debra is also a member of the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia and the Law Society of the ACT. 

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