By Nicola Berkovic
FAMILY Court Chief Justice Diana Bryant has warned family lawyers not to pressure victims of domestic violence into accepting child custody arrangements that are inconsistent with their wishes.
Her warning came after the mother of a 17-year-old West Australian girl known as “Abbey”, who took her own life, said she did not willingly consent to parenting orders that allowed the girl’s father — a convicted pedophile — overnight access to her daughter.
Abbey’s mother said the parenting orders led directly to the confusion and self-loathing that caused her daughter — who later disclosed that she had been abused by her father — to take her life.
Chief Justice Bryant said in Sydney that she was often told by parents who complained about orders made with their consent that they had been pressured by their lawyers into agreeing to arrangements they did not want.
She said parents sometimes told her they had been warned that the court would not believe their allegations. “I doubt that is true: I hope it’s not true of anyone in the room and I do understand that these are people’s perceptions and they arise from very complex situations,” she said.
“(But) we must ensure always, all of us, lawyers and judges, that where the orders have been by consent, that it is truly and absolutely a reflection of appropriate practice and free will.”
Chief Justice Bryant said lawyers had to be careful when dealing with cases involving family violence. “The act provides for matters to be raised with the court and they should be,” she said.
“No one should ever suggest it’s not appropriate in any way (to raise them) and I would hope nobody here does so.”
In Abbey’s case, the parenting orders had been made by the Family Court of Western Australia at the request of both parents and with the consent of the Department for Child Protection, following the recommendation of a psychologist.
The orders, which were also consistent with Abbey’s expressed wishes, allowed the father overnight access to his children, provided his current wife or parents were staying overnight with him. Last year, Abbey disclosed to her mother that her father sexually assaulted her repeatedly between the ages of three and seven.
Family Court of Western Australian Chief Justice Stephen Thackray has defended his court, saying the difficulty in Abbey’s case was that it was never asked to make a decision, which was effectively made for it by the parents.
However, Abbey’s mother said she had spent 11 years navigating the family law and child-protection systems and did not give her consent willingly.
She said she could not afford to challenge final orders in court, especially when she would have to fight the recommendations of the psychologist.