Family law specialist Mark Sullivan celebrates 40 year career milestone

Our region has the state's highest rate of family violence, and our court registry is significantly under resourced.

Mark Sullivan

What influenced your career?

At 14 my mother died suddenly, and my father became a single parent of eight children. The joys, sadness and complexities of family relationships have always been important to me. I joined the second year of students in the new Macquarie Uni Law faculty. Its emphasis on the role law played in society appealed to me. I wanted a career with meaning and challenges. I came to Newcastle in 1981 as a graduate solicitor with Graham Mullane and Robert Lindsay. Their values, friendship, training and the opportunities for career progression were profound influences on me.

What made you specialise in family law?

Relationship breakdowns impact everyone in society. Family law is wound up with constant social and political change and the law has often been a leader in the field or played catch up.

What have been milestones in your area of practice in the four decades you have been practising?

In 1975 the Family Law Act introduced a multi-disciplinary child focused approach to resolving parenting issues. In the 80s, child support legislation established a fairer, more enforceable structure for the equitable support of children by their estranged parents. Since the 90s, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and chronic underfunding of the courts have increased pressures on the system. Responses after 2000 include the introduction of a pathway to resolving parenting issues with a more collaborative and multi-agency approach to family disputes and mediation, and the treatment of superannuation as property. Bringing same sex and de facto couples under the Act has also been significant.

Beyond family law, you focus on commercial and property disputes in relationship breakdowns. Have these cases risen since COVID-19?

There hasn't been a substantial rise in commercial property disputes since Covid. The bigger effect has been a change to how commercial and property matters are conducted given the increased uncertainties about valuing businesses, assessing future needs and lengthy court delays.

Many have voiced concerns about the impending merger of the Family Court into the federal circuit system. Do you believe it will affect the efficacy of the family court system?

No. Recent budget funding will assist the court to address issues relating to more family violence support services and better use of registrars, judges and family consultants. The reform agenda to deal with a dysfunctional family court system should not start and end with more court funding. The goals should be to find appropriate solutions to social issues causing relationship breakdowns, assisting families to resolve their issues without litigation and if litigation is unavoidable, avoid delays which may escalate costs and other complex issues.

Critics of the move say domestic violence victims may fall through the cracks. Do you believe families will be more at risk?

In the short to medium term - possibly. Our region has the state's highest rate of family violence, and our court registry is significantly under resourced. There is a huge backlog of unresolved complex cases involving vulnerable families and children whose problems are not readily resolved by mediation and need prompt judicial determination. Judges, registrars, family consultants, lawyers, police and social welfare agencies are upskilling in relation to domestic violence. Despite the spotlight, the risk to vulnerable families is continuing.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

Fortunately, our firm moved our manual paperwork operations online before the work-from-home orders. Mediations were able to take place by Zoom. Financial uncertainty from lockdowns has affected employment opportunities, borrowing capacity, child support, expert valuations of businesses and assets and this impacts on property settlements. Incompatibility of parents' views on vaccines, home study, managing health risks and travel, have created different issues.

Why did you train in superannuation?

After the home, superannuation is usually our next most valuable family asset. The main breadwinner usually accumulates it, and a homemaker parent would be disadvantaged if it could not be adjusted on relationship breakdown. Disentangling these financial aspects requires a knowledge of property law, trusts and super.

Family law is awash with emotion and friction. What draws you to it?

Family lawyers are more effective when acting as a guide dog, rather than a guard dog. My goal has always been to guide people through their relationship breakdown so they can move forward. We are parents for life. Relationships continue after separation. Helping clients remain child focussed is important.

July marks 40 years since you became a solicitor. Your goals in the next decade?

I have built a talented family law team. Its leadership baton is shared with my talented co directors. I hope to see the firm thrive with me lending a guiding hand.