It is time for a National inquiry into the Family Law Court. This inquiry should seek to understand if decisions are balanced and fair for both parties. A system of review and redress should follow.
Listening to the stories of men
Over the past year, I have engaged with men online and their stories about their experiences with Family Court matters. I have also been privy to the stories of men I know personally and their experiences within the Family Court system in Australia. I have found these stories to be quite alarming.
I believe there is a system of unfairness. There are indeed enough personal recounts that I have personally come across to conclude that some/many men appear to be on the receiving end of injustice and unfairness within the Family Court system. It is fair to assume that this extends beyond my own networks and could indeed be a prevalent experience amongst men.
The child should always be placed at the centre of the policy framework. The best outcome for the child should be to have regular physical and emotional contact with both parents, wherever possible.
I am a strong believer that if there is no violence, where neither parent, nor child is in danger from the other; that both parents have the same right to be involved fully in their child’s life. That should be seen as fair and just. If that means that neither parent can leave the geographical area, then so be it.
For some men, this is not a complex matter of whom the child lives with; but it is simply a matter of being given ‘permission’ to have physical contact with their own child on a regular basis – to simply be involved. That basic right should always be decided upon in a fair and just manner, with the child at the centre of the decision. Not the desires of either parent placed at the centre of the decision.
Just one of the stories
One personal story told to me recently, was from a young father. He has fought to be able to spend time with his child since the day she was born. The mother had already decided “her baby” did not need a father, prior to the birth (his personal recount and he showed me text messages to the same effect). The father has seen the child for only 32 days out of 530 days, despite a mediated parenting agreement being in place. I am reassured that there was/is no violence and no unusual circumstances. The existing mediated agreement also support this is not the case. This is just a simple story of a father who wants to be involved in his child’s life.
In this instance, the mother has moved five times. The father has travelled to various places to see his child all in the relatively close geographical area, up to an hour and a half away. However, recently the mother took the child and moved 2,500 km’s away across three states without telling the father. One day she did not show up at the agreed place to deliver the child to the father for his scheduled visit at his home. The mother was unable to be contacted for months.
The mother ignored the parenting agreement already decided upon in mediation in the court system during the first round of appeal by the father to spend time with his child (Legal proceedings commenced from the day the child was born). The mother removed the child and took the child to live three states away in the period between the court mediated parenting agreement and the official court ruling (which I understand confirms the parenting agreement agreed to at mediation).
After a court battle instigated by the father (which has been ongoing since the birth of the child), the judge decided ‘although it is not ideal’ he will be at least ‘allowed’ to Skype his child twice a week. The judge acknowledged the mother broke the parenting agreement but ruled that the mother does not have to return the child to the same geographical area so the father can have regular access.
This was because the mother has relatives in the state she moved to. The mother also has relatives in the area the child was born and removed from. However, this was not taken into account. Most importantly, the fact that the child has the other parent – a key and major relative back where the child was moved from – was completely ignored.
His new reality
The father’s involvement in the child’s life will be via a screen on an I-Phone – twice per week. The Skype calls so far have been about 15 minutes long. The child is under two years old. The father is around 20 years old. For this young man, the legal battle to see his child continues. He has been informed to appeal this, he needs to travel three states away and appeal the matter in the court where the mother now resides.
For men with little income, how do they cope with this, let alone the emotional turmoil?
The most difficult part for me as the recipient of this story, was the feeling of helplessness for the father who is so distraught at being punished because, in his own words:
“I have done everything the court has said to do. I followed the agreement. I have done nothing wrong. She has done everything wrong. How is that fair? How is that fair?”
If listening to this brings forth such distressing emotions for me, a third party – what is the actual emotional toll on the father? I conclude it is insurmountable.
How many stories similar to this young man’s story are there?
Why does this matter?
The impetus for my writing this is a question from this father: “What is the point of a parenting agreement, if one party can just break it?” How is that fair? After hearing this story, it appears that mediated agreements have no weight as a legal mechanism to protect the rights of either parent. In this case – the father’s rights.
If there is no case for violence, danger or unusual circumstances (drugs/alcohol etc.), laws need to be reviewed to ensure that the child is placed at the centre of decisions made and fairness for both parties prevails.
I am not a family law expert and I declare that I have no experience in studying family law and I do not understand the complexities of the system. However, I am an individual who sees patterns in narrative. It is patterns in narrative – in stories of lived experience which set the foundations of how our society is shaped. I have developed the belief that there is something wrong with the shape of this part of our society at present.
The patterns in narrative I am seeing are raw, emotional, frightening and alarming. I simply have to say… or do something. I cannot have a platform such as a blog and remain silent on this matter. I don’t see the point of being someone who is actively engaged politically just to ignore what I am hearing. I don’t see the point of labelling myself a liberal feminist, or a democratic socialist, if I ignore a blatant area of inequality which can be redressed by a review of the existing law and on what basis decisions are made.
The stories I have engaged with online and amongst others within my own networks, all point to that men are overwhelmingly experiencing injustice and inequality in Family Law cases and there is an pool of emotional pain that is as vast as it is deep. There simply must be a better solution. With same sex couples also with families, the notion of the woman having prominence of all decisions can no longer be the norm and should never have been. This should never be about gender. The child simply must be at the centre of this policy debate.
For those of us who claim to be for equality and social justice, we must ask why more attention is not being paid to men who are self harming, who are in severe emotional distress and who are also taking their own lives, because of decisions in the family court.
This is not my story. I am merely the story-teller. As a woman, I do not have this experience as a father. I have been told by men that this is their reality – this is their lived experience due to decisions of the Family Court of Australia.
Gathering evidence for a proposal
I simply seek to bring a proposal to the two political major parties and advocate that they take a serious view of the stories of men. I will be seeking that they agree to bi-partisan support.
Once I have gathered enough evidence for a proposal, I will ask that they recommend a National Inquiry into the Family Court of Australia. I will also ask that they seek to implement an operational strategy where cases can be re-heard and a system of redress is put into place.
To assist me in gathering evidence for a proposal, I have developed a short questionnaire (see below). Please feel free to share your story and opinion by completing the survey below. The purpose of this short questionnaire is to collect stories from men who feel they have experienced injustice in the Family Court of Australia.
These stories will be used to identify main themes to highlight where there may be consistent areas of inequality. You may use a pseudonym and please do not include any identifying details.
This proposal will be sent to Ministers and politicians relevant to this area, to advocate for a national review of the Family Court of Australia; including a proposal for a system of individual review and redress, where inequality is identified.
From the information gathered, other suggestions will also be proposed, as per the lived experience of men who have completed this survey.
My aim is not about one gender winning or one gender losing, but ensuring that this is brought to light so we have an actual system of fairness and the child is placed at the centre of any decisions made.
Please note this is a point of advocacy. It is not a guaranteed solution. I do not know what the outcome will be, but this needs to start somewhere.