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THERE’S an old saying that he who wins at law, loses. The inference is that while it’s sometimes necessary to go to court, doing so can be painful, time consuming, and exhausting.
While the law can make a determination on the law, it cannot mend broken trust or broken hearts. By contrast restorative approaches aim to repair relationships, to address the circumstances that contributed to the conflict and find a new way forward. The ACT government is to be applauded on its oft reiterated determination to make Canberra a “Restorative City”.
But given that insistence, it’s verging on impossible to understand why for the past decade the government hasn’t increased funding for the Conflict Resolution Service to reflect increasing demand for its services and population growth, when we have been providing a meaningful alternative to the courts for 30 years.
Much of our work now involves family dispute resolution through community mediation. This often involves family violence, another area where the government has been vocal about creating change. Demand has tripled in 10 years while individual case complexities and the time required to deal with them have increased tenfold. In 2011, for example, CRS dealt with 14 family conflict matters. Last financial year it was 985.
And they are heartbreaking cases, too: parents at breaking point, children at risk, in families that are already highly vulnerable due to insecure income and accommodation, financial stress and physical and mental health issues. Our Family Tree House program is also best practice for preventing youth homelessness, another key governmental concern.
We work extensively with ACT police, who value our service. A decade ago they sent us 74 cases, in 2016 it was 432. In the midst of a major community discussion on family violence, we are seeing more and more people report incidents and seek help where once they were silent.
Is the Barr government suggesting that we turn those people away when they have only just found the courage to step forward? Should people who have a chance of reaching a peaceful outcome really be diverted towards adversarial clogged court systems?
We know that we’re getting it right. Our success rate is more than 80 per cent of cases that go to mediation. But, like other smaller organisations in the community sector, CRS faces increased administrative and compliance demands. In response to our funding crisis, we have prioritised the wellbeing of our clients above everything to meet demand.
That is fundamentally unsustainable and it’s unfair that we are expected to do so. CRS has restructured and reduced staffing and reduced its service delivery output in order to survive. But we are on our knees at the very time when there has never been a more urgent need for our services and our expertise.
The CRS is the only dedicated provider of specialised community dispute resolution services in the ACT, offering help to low-income Canberrans. Other jurisdictions access community dispute resolution services through government departments, but there’s solid evidence that the CRS model is actually cheaper.
Conflict resolution isn’t shiny or attention grabbing. It doesn’t create exciting sound grabs or look good on posters. But funding conflict resolution gives much more back than any photo opportunity. It gives families another chance. It gives children safety and stability and prevents the terrible damage caused by homelessness, imprisonment and estrangement.
On February 22 and 23 leaders from around Canberra will gather for a workshop to consider Canberra as a Restorative City. Attorney General Gordon Ramsay will open this event. Recently, the minister said that he would “be focusing on how our justice system can become even more accessible, transparent and timely by fostering restorative practices in the ACT”. Without doubt the best way to do that effectively and cheaply is to increase the funding to CRS.
Time is running out. We can only hope that the government is listening.
Shawn van der Linden is the CEO the ACT’s Conflict Resolution Service.