and ain't i a woman?: Women and family law

Issue 

and ain't i a woman?: Women and family law

In 1994, The Australian Law Reform Commission Report on Equality Before the Law: Women's Access to the Legal System was released. In 600 written and oral submissions, women documented their desperate stories of a legal system that humiliates them, dismisses their suffering and fails to deliver them justice.

Sydney Morning Herald writer on "family" issues Bettina Arndt did not, however, feel it necessary to cite any such experiences in her recent broadside against the Family Court, family law and divorced mothers. Arndt's three-part series earlier this month canvassed many of the undoubted difficulties of family law, but served mainly as a cover for her views that the current family law system gives women all the power and men none, and that women are maliciously doing everything in their power to deny their children access to fathers.

A "well-used strategy is that accusation of child sexual abuse", wrote Arndt in part one. She also rails against recent amendments to the act requiring judges to consider domestic violence as a reason to deny fathers access to children, resulting, she says, in the adoption of apprehended violence orders as a new weapon in women's arsenal. Her second piece castigated the Family Court for its lack of action against women who breached court orders giving fathers access to their children.

While Arndt was able to marshall a wealth of stories of fathers and children done wrong, she didn't include any from women whose experiences of domestic violence or child sexual abuse have been either not taken seriously or ignored by the court.

The 1994 ALRC report includes stories like that of a Filipina who came to Australia as a bride, only to have her two young daughters murdered by her estranged husband during an access visit set down by the Family Court.

After seven years of assault and emotional abuse by her husband, the woman tried to stop the violence by applying for a series of restraining orders, seeking help from solicitors and living in hiding. Although the children were terrified of her husband, the Family Court granted him access. On the day of the murders, he assaulted her when she dropped off the children. Only after three visits to the police and her daughters' non-appearance at the designated collection, did a constable investigate and find that the daughters had been dead since lunchtime.

Also not mentioned by Arndt was the fatal shooting last March of a Sydney woman by her ex-husband outside the Family Court in Parramatta. The custody case regarding their four children was to be heard that afternoon. The woman had moved from refuge to refuge in the past year to escape her ex-husband.

Arndt's underlying conclusion is that women — given too much access to law — are to blame. That the current family law system, flawed as it is, has given women unprecedented access to justice and control of their lives is not on Arndt's mind.

She also doesn't mention, despite its topicality, the current discussion around the direction of family law and the changes the Coalition government is making. The May 21 Law Report on ABC Radio National revealed that the Family Court has been required to cut costs by around $3.5 million, and that the Bendigo and Mackay Family Court sub-registries, for example, which include counselling and circuit hearings facilities, will be closed by the end of June.

Despite the undoubted success of mediation in achieving resolutions that are beneficial all around, the Coalition is also proposing that this Family Court service be privatised. If that happens, Bettina Arndt's anti-woman and anti-family law campaign will be given a boost.

By Jennifer Thompson