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Murder, suicide and the skills shortage

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Thursday, 28 April 2005

Here’s a story about that skills shortage our politicians keep telling us about.

My wife is a teacher. Many years ago she became friends with “Carolyn” the mother of seven-year-old “Hamish” who had “special needs” - our latest euphemism for the severely disabled. Carolyn used to help out a lot at the school. She helped everyone, but she was really there for Hamish.

Carolyn’s marriage was disintegrating and things had got nasty.


Having a law degree (for my sins), I ended up counselling her. Her lawyer - let’s call him Chris - was a cheerful fellow in a big bright yellow bow tie, who had about as much empathy for his client as our immigration system has for asylum seekers who’ve sewn their lips together.

Chris suggested she change the locks and lock her husband out of the family house. I was horrified - not so much at the advice, but at the complete lack of support in helping her carry out a dangerous act against a man of whom she was clearly frightened.

In her traumatised state Carolyn was not thinking through how things might unfold - she was just following instructions. I still remember saying, “Carolyn, if you do this, it has to be like a military operation, with support at hand if things turn nasty”. Chris hadn’t bothered discussing this with her or referring her to someone who would. I suggested contacting a women’s refuge.

I don’t think she ever did. Carolyn died in circumstances sufficiently suspicious to lead to her husband’s trial for murder - though not so suspicious that the jury found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If you were on the jury what would you have done - sent Hamish’s remaining parent to jail while he grew up? Hamish is now doing well by all reports.

Why is this a story about skills shortages? Well, I reckon Chris the lawyer had a major skills shortage. He probably did “family law” at uni - for all I know he specialised in it. But if thoughtfulness about people’s real needs can be taught at all, it wasn’t taught at law school when I did family law.

One could argue that Chris should be required to train in social work. But why not turn it round the other way? Family law is a pretty tightly confined sub-set of law. By all means graft social working skills onto lawyers - for some reason my mind turns to that image of a human ear grafted onto the back of a mouse (or was it a rat?). But, with the government’s “skills initiative” offering to publicly fund proposals for innovative ways to accelerate the acquisition of urgently needed skills, the time is right to be much more flexible about career pathways and credentials.


Why can’t a social worker qualify to practice family law by doing - say - an 18-month diploma in family law and a year of “articles” in a family law practice?

Firstly we don’t want to experiment too much with the qualifications of professionals - we have too strong a need to trust them. But we also allow professional practitioners to go gatekeeper and defender of standards in their own profession.

So there’s a good whiff of self interest in the defence of standards. Even if you were a lawyer who wouldn't be threatened by easier entry into the profession, you might well think that all the hard work you did wouldn’t do others any harm.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on April 20, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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