It's time we took a long hard look at how women & children are treated in family courts

It’s time we took a long hard look at how women & children are treated in family courts

On March 15th this year, an estimated 110,000 women and their allies staged demonstrations in 40 locations around Australia to protest the treatment of women. Not since the Second Wave feminist marches of the 1970s has so much female anger been on open public display.

It is clear that Australians are living through a major cultural reckoning on the treatment of women. Whether it’s the gender pay gap, the invisible labour women are still expected to do in the home, the endemic nature of sexual harassment in the workplace or the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault, women are speaking out. We have had it with the status quo.

Women may be putting their case loudly and proudly but it is equally clear that our legal and political institutions still have a long way to go.

In our book, Broken: Children, Parents and Family Courts, we take a forensic look at one such institution – the Family Court (now merged with the Federal Circuit Court) and how it has repeatedly failed families. And let’s face it: it is women, along with their children, who are most likely to suffer at the hands of the system in financial and emotional terms.

When parents split up, it is always a painful time for the family. Most people manage to sort out their differences and put their childrens’ interests first. But for those unlucky enough to wind up in the family courts, sometimes known in legal circles as The Chamber of Horrors, it is often a very different story.

Since its inception in 1976, born out an attempt to take shame and blame out of divorce and put childrens’ interests front and centre, the family courts have always been a political football.  Indeed, the family unit is political and a lens focused on how we see men and women’s roles.

What we think families are for, how labour is divided up in them and what part men and women should have in parenting is still contentious. ‘Family values’ advocates claim that progressive forces such as feminism and the LGBTI + movement are destroying the traditional family – ignoring the fact that families come in different forms and we all have values.

Many men’s rights groups have been decrying the Court for emboldening spiteful women since its inception and, in their most toxic form, asserting their right to effectively ‘own’ women and children.

Some of them act out their beliefs with astounding violence.

Yet the most astounding thing of all is that it is the family courts are where some of the sexist stereotypes about women which ground the beliefs of the worst men’s right activists are subtly trotted out.

Women who go to court with allegations of domestic violence or child sexual abuse are often told by their lawyers to be extremely careful in case they are accused of being an ‘alienating parent’. This is an evidence-free accusation based in the belief that women routinely make ‘false allegations’, and that children will repeat the ‘false allegations’ in which they have been ‘schooled’, ‘coached’ or – in the oddly unscientific terminology used the in family court room – ‘brainwashed’ by their mothers.

Catharine Lumby and Camilla Nelson, authors of Broken: Children, Parents and Family Courts

In 2021, it is astounding – almost unbelievable – that the same old narratives depicting women as scheming, manipulative and lying still crop up in judgements, expert reports and submissions by lawyers. But they do.

Of course, there are also judges, lawyers and court appointed experts who genuinely care about the families they encounter and are frustrated with the appalling lack of resources that plague the system. Some of them are on the record as acknowledging that the system is fundamentally broken.

The family courts have been in many ways a long-form social experiment in how we understand families and the very gendered roles that men and women have traditionally played in them.

At a cultural moment when women are calling out the deeply entrenched sexism that characterises their workplaces and their parliaments it is time to take a long hard look at how women and their children are treated in family courts.

Broken is an attempt to bring that moment of reckoning to a court and ask us all to think about why families matter and most importantly what happens to children caught up in the adversarial wheels of justice and the vexed politics of gender.

You can purchase Broken: Children, Parents and Family Courts by Catharine Lumby and Camilla Nelson via BlackInc Books, here.

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