First act of the family law review should be using research we already have

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We already have a great deal of high-quality information about what works, and what doesn’t, in our family law system. shutterstock

This article appeared in The Conversation on 4 October 2016. Information about the first holistic  review of the family law system since it was created in 1974 can be found on the Australian Law Reform Commission website.

Renata Alexander, Monash University

On September 27, Attorney-General George Brandis commissioned the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to undertake what he described as “the first comprehensive review of the family law system” since the commencement of the Family Law Act in January 1976.

The terms of reference are extremely wide-ranging. Producing a report by March 31, 2019, seems overly ambitious.

There has been universal support for such a review from key players in family law, as well as those more on the periphery such as politicians espousing party-dictated views or representing individual (usually aggrieved) constituents.

As much as such a review will serve a valuable purpose, it is important to remember that our family law system has not remained static for the last four decades. There have been numerous significant reforms not only to the statute itself, but to the operation of courts determining family law cases, and allied areas such as family dispute resolution and counselling.

The Family Law Act initially introduced several revolutionary changes. For example, it established the Family Court of Australia; introduced “no-fault” divorce; and totally revamped laws about determining children’s cases and property settlement.

It also set up a new system of alternative dispute resolution and established the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) as a dedicated research body, along with the Family Law Council (FLC) as a representative body to monitor and advise the federal government on operational and policy matters.

Since then, various aspects of our family law system have been examined and changed.


Further reading: No simple solution when families meet the law


Family law legislation has undergone significant expansion and reform. It now covers divorce, nullity, parental responsibilities and obligations in respect of all children, and children’s rights.

It covers de facto relationships (marriage is dealt with specifically by the Marriage Act), spousal maintenance, division of property binding financial agreements, and family violence. There are now two federal family law courts, but they are overburdened and have long waiting lists.

Researchers too have not been idle. For example, the 1980s and 1990s saw a plethora of reports by the ALRC about domestic violence (1986), matrimonial property (1987), contempt (1987), multiculturalism and family law (1991), justice for women (1994), and complex child contact cases (1995).

More recently, the ALRC has produced two substantial reports on family violence.

In addition, the AIFS, the FLC and the family law courts have each produced numerous reports on a wide range of areas including child protection, parenting arrangements post-separation, and family violence.

The Family Law Act established the Family Court of Australia. Shutterstock

There have also been important bipartisan state and federal parliamentary inquiries, most notably the federal inquiry into child custody arrangements in the event of family separation. This in turn produced “Every picture tells a story” in 2003 and the parliamentary inquiry into how family law can better support and protect those affected by family violence in 2017.

All these resources reflect a rich but largely unconnected tapestry of information about our family law system, which the ALRC can use to assess how best to reform the system.

Yes, the ALRC review of the Australian family law system is most welcome. However, it need not waste precious time or resources to remind us, as Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, that “all happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

Notwithstanding the wide terms of reference, some other areas merit attention. These include the use of “good” evidence-based social science in determining the best interests of children and crafting parenting orders.

Another area is access to justice. The high cost of legal representation and cuts to legal aid mean large numbers of self-represented litigants. Also there is the question of mandatory education for judges and legal professionals in areas such as family violence and child abuse, which comprise over half of the courts’ work loads.

We know that families are complex entities when intact. And it is equally complex and complicated catering to the needs of adults and children once those family structures break down.

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New Podcast: The Scarlet Letter speaks to Dr Kate Seear

In this episode of the Scarlet Letter we talk to Dr Kate Seear about the origins of her feminism. We also learn about her work on addiction and the law, as well as her well-known football podcast, the Outer Sanctum.

kate seear

Dr Kate Seear

Interviewers: Dr Azadeh Dastyari and Tamara Wilkinson.

How heterosexual couples are protesting marriage inequality

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 24 September 2016. Dr Becky Batagol is a Convener of the Monash Feminist Legal Studies Group.

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Heterosexual couples who believe in marriage equality, and the civil celebrants who marry them, are using wedding ceremonies to protest marriage law in Australia. shutterstock

Becky Batagol, Monash University

As the spring wedding season warms up, increasing numbers of heterosexual couples are using their wedding ceremonies to call for a change to Australia’s marriage law.

Australian support for marriage equality has steadily increased over the years; it has risen from just 38% in 2004. A July 2014 poll showed 72% of Australians supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

A clear majority of married heterosexual couples favour marriage equality. And a 2016 poll suggests that support for marriage equality is high among second-generation Australians.

Despite this support for marriage equality, marriage itself is in decline in Australia. There were just 5.2 marriages per 1000 people in 2014, down from 6.2 in 2004 and 9.2 in 1950. These figures are much lower than in the US. And 74.1% of Australians who do get married now choose a civil rather than religious wedding.

Institutionalised discrimination

At every civil wedding ceremony in Australia, the discriminatory nature of marriage must be announced by law. The Marriage Act obliges civil celebrants to say:

Before you are joined in marriage in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter.

Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

This requirement, known colloquially as the “monitum” (Latin for “warning”), has existed since the Marriage Act was enacted as Australia’s first national marriage law in 1961.

The provision reflects common law and religious views prevalent at the time. Garfield Barwick, the key architect of Australia’s marriage laws, explained in 1960 that the legislation was:

… a contribution towards the stability of marriage.

These ideas persist today. Arguments for protecting the institution of marriage were mustered again by the parliament in 2004, this time to justify explicitly excluding same-sex couples from the Marriage Act. Philip Ruddock, then the attorney-general, said:

The government has consistently reiterated the fundamental importance of the place of marriage in our society … [and will] take steps to reinforce the basis of this fundamental institution.

Heterosexual solidarity

Given the ubiquity of civil marriage and support for marriage equality, how do heterosexual brides and grooms who support marriage equality manage the legal requirement of the monitum at their weddings?

My ongoing research reveals heterosexual couples who believe in marriage equality, and the civil celebrants who marry them, use their wedding ceremonies to protest marriage law in Australia in a number of ways.

Most common were “statements of protest” read by the civil celebrant, bride, groom or another guest before or after the monitum. These express dissatisfaction with the current state of the law and a desire for reform.

Other methods included:

  • the celebrant reading the monitum quietly or turning the PA system down;
  • holding private, legal wedding ceremonies with the monitum, and then a separate, public ceremony without it;
  • holding a commitment ceremony instead of a wedding;
  • having guests wear ribbons in solidarity; and
  • from one celebrant, the omission of the monitum during small weddings where they were confident they would not be reported.

My sample is too small to reliably state the extent to which there is a commitment to marriage equality in civil wedding ceremonies nationwide. Estimates from the celebrants I spoke to ranged, at the low end, from a commitment to marriage equality in 2-3% of weddings conducted by that celebrant to 80-90% at the high end.

I will be surveying all registered Australian civil celebrants to reliably understand the magnitude of the protest phenomenon.

Multiple recent opinion polls suggest the majority of Australians back same-sex marriage. Charles Platiau, CC BY-NC

Reconciling protests with personal opportunity

What my research does show is getting married while disagreeing with marriage law is a pretty narrow space to inhabit.

One bride, Edith (not her real name), arranged for her celebrant to make a heartfelt statement of protest after the monitum at her wedding. Edith acknowledged the difficulties:

I do have friends that say they wouldn’t get married until the law changes. And I felt like I didn’t want to wait for that. We have reasons for wanting to get married now and do it. There are probably some people who would feel that that’s selling out, and I totally get that, but I just felt like I really wanted to make that clear and not partake in something exclusionary.

Some couples aren’t prepared to sign up. Suzanne and her partner, Kieran, had a wedding ceremony surrounded by family and friends in 2015, but this was not a legal marriage. Suzanne explained why:

Now, women aren’t so much discriminated in the Marriage Act, but same-sex couples absolutely are. And, to me, signing that document is equivalent to saying, ‘I don’t like Hitler, I’m going to join the Nazi Party’ … [people that] get married are inadvertently endorsing the legislation.

If everybody turned around and said, ‘Well, I’m just not going to get married under this legislation anymore,’ the government would be forced to look at it … I cannot sign that document, because as soon as I say I’m legally married … I am consenting to the very issues that I stand against.

Suzanne’s views might suggest something important about Australia’s discriminatory marriage laws: rather than protecting the institution of marriage, they may be directly damaging it. Not only are LGTBI couples unable to access marriage, but straight couples may be unwilling to join an institution seen as exclusionary and outdated.

Abortion in limited cases finally legalised in Chile

In 2011, I published a piece in the journal Human Rights Quarterly where I presented a rebuttal of a book arguing that abortion is prohibited under international law under all circumstances. In my review I concluded that the book
calls repeatedly for principled analysis, intellectual integrity and an end to revisionist interpretation yet fails to meet its own challenge. A principled analysis might have acknowledged that the core human rights instruments do not coincide with [the author’s] philosophical position and explored her vision for the development of international law, including means of addressing conflicts of rights.
Until August 2017, Chile was one of just 6 countries in the world that had a complete ban on all abortions (even where the mother’s or baby’s life was at stake), jailing both the woman and the doctor involved in the procedure. This law was put into place in 1989 under during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
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Pro Choice March, Santiago, July 2013. Photo: Santaigo Times, by Ashoka Jegroo Creative commons

When the first female President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet was re-elected in 2014 (after previously serving as President from 2006 to 2010), she declared reproductive rights an important focus of her tenure.  The Bachelet government put forward a bill  in 2015 which legalised abortion in cases of rape, foetal disability, and danger to the life of the mother.

That bill has been the subject of two years of political wrangling and debate, and was challenged in Chile’s Constitutional Court. On 21 August 2017 the Court upheld the constitutionality of the bill, meaning that abortion will be lawful when the pregnancy results from rape, when the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life and when the foetus is not viable.

A short YouTube video about the change to Chile’s abortion laws and the case can be found here. The quote included from Pinochet’s advisor is especially chilling.

In 2016, I was in Santiago, Chile, and met with Lidia Casas Baccera, a lawyer who was involved in the case. She asked me whether she could use a review I had written in Human Rights Quarterly . Of course I agreed and the review was translated and included in the materials put before the court scrutinising the Bachelet amendment. It is really exciting that the court has upheld the Bachelet amendment.

Between her two presidential terms, Bachelet served as the inaugural executive director of UN Women.  Her government has now succeeded in bringing an end to unjust laws that have punished and endangered women while denuding them of autonomy and rights. She will finish her term as president in March next year, leaving a proud legacy of advancing women’s equality.

Eddie McGuire, Caroline Wilson and when ‘playful banter’ goes very, very wrong

By Dr Kate Seear, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Monash University

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 20 June 2016.

An article about the background story to this article can be found here. Kate is a member of the Outer Sanctum podcast team, which first broke this story. 

 

Image 20160620 9516 65803yEddie McGuire caused a furore by suggesting the drowning of prominent sports journalist Caroline Wilson.

AAP/Tracey Nearmy

 

Kate Seear, Monash University

In March 2016, five female friends and I began The Outer Sanctum podcast, a weekly show where we discuss the big footy issues of the day. Through interviews we also aim to provide a platform for voices not usually heard in conventional sports media.

As six passionate female footy fans, we hoped we could disrupt the conversation by showing that women, too, are passionate and knowledgeable about footy, but also by exploring some of the bigger social and cultural aspects of the game.

A major footy story

Over the last couple of days, we have somehow suddenly found ourselves at the centre of a major footy story.

On this week’s podcast we explored controversial comments that two AFL club presidents, Eddie McGuire and James Brayshaw, had made with others on Triple M radio. They laughed about drowning prominent Fairfax sports journalist Caroline Wilson to raise money for charity. I recommend listening to the audio in full, because both the language and the atmosphere are important.

We were surprised that this hadn’t been a much bigger story during the week. No major news media had run with it.

Over the weekend, however, listeners to our little podcast started to take notice: the story began to spread on social media, was eventually picked up by freelance sports writer Erin Riley, independent podcaster and blogger Josh Pinn and, eventually, The Age, Herald Sun, The Guardian, ABC and others.

The AFL has since publicly condemned the comments. Ironically, they came in an historic week for women in the game: it launched the inaugural women’s league, held a special themed game to support the anti-violence charity White Ribbon, and partnered with Our Watch, an organisation that aims to raise awareness about violence against women.

It also comes at a time when prominent AFL footballer Jimmy Bartel is running a season-long campaign to raise awareness about violence against women through his #FaceUpToDV campaign.

It feels like we have taken one step forward and two steps back.

These events raise important questions about footy culture

There are two particularly important questions to emerge from this series of events.

First, what might this “casual sexism” and “blokey banter” tell us about the culture of AFL football specifically, and society more broadly? Wilson has herself suggested that it’s a rebuke for being a strong, opinionated and tough woman who routinely holds the big boys of AFL to account.

The impact on Wilson is clear – she is hurt and offended. But on radio talkback and social media around the country she is already being criticised for lacking a sense of humour and for “bringing it on herself”. This is language that bears dangerous and uncomfortable parallels with victim-blaming language so often used in the context of rape.

Language matters. As Our Watch points out, there are important links between the use of disrespectful language towards women, the language of violence, and the occurrence of violence.When prominent men with a major media platform use disrespectful language towards women, it risks reinforcing the notion that women are inferior to men.

As media commentator Patrick Smith noted:

What’s happening is the football community is going exactly the same route that racism went through. We had to learn that there are no throwaway lines in racism, that nothing is funny. There’s no throwaway lines in domestic violence. So whatever you think is funny, is not funny.

Patterns of speech can also constitute, in some contexts, a form of actual family violence, a point explicitly recognised in legislation defining family violence.

The need for education and respect

The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence’s final, seven-volume report directly acknowledged the importance of education, language and socialisation in the treatment of women.

Among its 227 recommendations for change, the commission emphasised prevention, including the need for schools to educate young children on respectful relationships.

The commission’s report also stresses the need for supportive workplaces. Let us not forget, then, that these comments were made in a workplace, where the capacity to cause hurt and offence should be at the forefront of people’s minds.

They were also made on a major media platform with a wide audience. The Commercial Radio Australia rules explicitly state that media should not broadcast material “which condones or incites violence against women”. Although I am not suggesting that was the intention or the effect here, it’s another pointed reminder of the need to speak with care.

The importance of new voices and diverse media

The second question we need to ask is this: why was this story not picked up by the mainstream media? Why did it take our podcast, and our listeners, to generate this conversation?

Wilson believes that people are scared of McGuire and reluctant to stand up to him. This might drive a culture of non-reporting and fear that journalists who challenge powerful figures risk losing their AFL accreditation.

It may be that some mainstream AFL journalists thought nothing of the exchange because the language of casual sexism is so commonplace that it might just seem no normal to them. But that’s what makes this an even bigger story: McGuire, Brayshaw and their colleagues are powerful media figures, with extraordinary reach and clout. It’s incumbent upon them to be careful when they speak, because what they say carries enormous weight.

Needless to say, there are questions to be asked and answered by some of the biggest names in the game. In a media landscape that has long been dominated by certain groups (primarily white men), this story offers a stark reminder of the importance of new voices and diverse media.

These voices “from the outer” are sparking new conversations: some painful and long overdue, but they are conversations that will ultimately only enrich the game we love, and our society.

And as we continue to be reminded that one woman dies from violence per week in this country, let us hope that this is the start of a new conversation, rather than the end of one.


The ConversationKate Seear, Academic Director of Springvale Monash Legal Service & Senior Lecturer in Law, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New Scarlet Letter Podcast: Dr Renata Alexander

A new Scarlet Letter podcast is now out featuring feminist academic and barrister Dr Renata Alexander.

Feminism fire F

This interview features Renata talking about how coming from a holocaust survivor family, feminism has become the main vehicle through which she conducts her academic and legal practice. Listen to learn about how the Sit Down Girlie column came about.

We have begun the podcast series by interviewing members of the feminist legal studies group. In this episode, we focus on the work of our family violence researchers, one of the six areas of research strength we have in our Feminist Legal Studies Group.

Our six areas of particular research strength are
1. family violence;
2. alcohol, drugs and gender;
3. the impact of energy policy/climate change upon women;
4. women’s economic empowerment (including labour rights, taxation, unpaid work, privacy);
5. women, poverty and international movement;
6. reproductive health and abortion reform.

Renata is interviewed in this episode by Tamara Wilkinson and Becky Batagol.

You can access the podcast episode here through Soundcloud and iTunes.

Tamara, Renata and Becky 16 August 2017

Tamara Wilkinson, Renata Alexander (and her tights) and Becky Batagol in the interview room

Positive post-separation parenting: What works for Australian parents? Research Participants Wanted

This post is authored by Dr Kris Natalier and Dr Priscilla Dunk West, Flinders University. Priscilla and Kris study how people make sense of intimate and family relationships. This is research that we believe is important, well-conceived and worth participating in. 

 

Do you have a good relationship with your former partner?

We would like to hear about your experiences, to find out what works in building good relationships between separated parents.

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Photo: Nick Kenrick Creative Commons

We are interested in surveying and interviewing parents – men and women – who are 18 years or older and who have good relationships with their former partners.  We are interested in hearing about how you define ‘good relationships’ and how you build and maintain a good relationship with your former partner and other important people in your life: what works, what’s easy, what’s hard?

The study involves a survey and, if you wish two confidential, one-on-one, in-depth interviews: one where you tell us about your relationship with your former partner and one, around four months later, where you tell us if anything has changed.  We expect the interviews will last approximately one hour. We can interview you on the phone, by Skype, or if you live in Adelaide, in a place that suits you.

If you are interested in completing the survey, you can find it here.

If you are interested in being interviewed, or hearing more about the study please contact Priscilla [Priscilla.dunkwest@flinders.edu.au         08 8 8201 5288] or Kris kris.natalier@flinders.edu.au              08 8201 3391]

The study is conducted by Dr Priscilla Dunk West and Dr Kristin Natalier, researchers at Flinders University. Priscilla and Kris study how people make sense of intimate and family relationships. We are not employed by any service to conduct this study.

Taking part in this study is voluntary. Your decision to participate or not will not impact upon your access to any services or organisations.