GRIEVANCE DEBATE: Family Law Act
Mr CADMAN (Mitchell) (4.15 p.m.) - I want to grieve today about some aspects of the Family Law Act. I have come across a particularly distressing case and whilst I know that a particular problem can often create bad law if one moves to resolve it I do believe that this case epitomises a problem of the Family Law Act and by way of amendment a better result can be achieved.
It was a case that was first brought to my attention during the year 2000 but the story commenced back in 1997, with a young couple - a girl aged 15 and a young man slightly older. They were seeing a lot of each other. Sadly, the young lady became pregnant. The couple decided against an abortion, for which I give them great credit, and so a baby girl was born on 8 October 1998. The couple stayed with the parents of the young man for a period after the birth of the child, probably for about nine months.
During that period, the young man's mother and her third husband - it was not the father of the young man but the third husband of his mother - became quite possessive of the baby and wanted to look after every aspect of the baby's wellbeing, including taking it to preschool and the general care and attention that a mother would give. After approximately nine months, the young couple decided they would move out of the home. Even though the young lady was approaching the age of only 17 - she was still very young - she and her partner decided they could make a go of it on their own.
He had found three jobs and he was working hard. The bloke could have walked away from this, and many young men, tragically, do. But he stuck to this young woman and they decided they were going to make a go of life together. But his mother was too dominating for them and so they moved to a house of their own, paying rent and with him working three jobs.
The man's parents were possessive, and on 6 December 1999 court orders were issued to give up the child to the grandparents for one half Sunday every three weeks. That is how possessive the grandmother was. She wanted to see this baby - an 18-month-old baby - for a Sunday afternoon every three weeks between 12 noon and 5 p.m. Hardly had the ink dried on the court's decision that that should occur when on 13 December 1999 there was a fresh claim by the grandmother. She wanted to see the child for two weeks holiday each year - that is 15 days each year - and to have the child the full weekend every second week. Not only that, she wanted the child to spend every second Christmas with her.
The court actually listened to this argument. It seems to me a really strange thing. Here we had a young couple trying hard to make a go of life with a baby, obviously worried about the grandparents' claim on the child, resisting the process and appearing in court and saying, `Look, we would like to visit whenever it suits us but we don't want to be compelled to visit the young man's mother by order of the court.' Nevertheless, the court decided that there would be a modification in the previous order of half a Sunday every three weeks and that instead it would be a full Sunday every three weeks. So the court was influenced by this extraordinary claim made by the grandmother and her husband.
On 12 January 2000 I had a letter from the girl's father. That letter sets out some of the concerns that the father had at that time. He -this is the young girl's father, also a grandparent - concludes in his final paragraph that he has watched these kids and they are doing well. He hates to see this interference. He points out that the parents of this child have a limited capacity to pay all these legal fees in the Family Court. I will repeat his exact words:
The grandfather is a professional man and has stated that he is going to send them bankrupt. He knows that when the parents run out of money they will have no choice other than to give in to his demands, so today at 5pm his lawyer has adjourned the hearing and changed their demands, which will add further expense to the parents.
Here is a young couple in their late teens trying to fight this in the Family Court from their own resources, and working three jobs to do it. I took it up with the Attorney-General at that point. In May 2000 the young couple moved to Queensland, by the way, to get away from this. A bit after they moved to Queensland, I got a reply from the Attorney-General which repeats properly the law as it stands. I note that in his penultimate paragraph he says: [start page 350]
he gives their names -
be dissatisfied with the Court's decision about their child's contact with her grandparents, they may ... consider challenging it through the normal appeal procedure.
How do a 19- and 18-year-old with an 18-month baby and working three jobs raise enough dough to go to the Federal Court? That is an impossible request. They are not eligible for legal aid, either. The Attorney-General stated:
Part X of the Act deals with appeals to the Family Court, however, time limits do apply.
He goes on to point out:
... children have a right of contact, on a regular basis, with both their parents and with other significant people to their care, welfare and development.
It just does not seem to acknowledge that a parent's responsibility is over and above that of other contacts that the child might have. The child's rights or the child's capacity to have contact with others is one thing, but the parents' resolve for the best for their children is something else.
Because the young people were in Queensland and this new claim was being heard in Parramatta, they were not going to travel with their 18-month-old daughter from Queensland every time there happened to be a court case, even if it was just on for hearing and then stood over. Understandably, they did not front. The next thing we know, the federal police went around and arrested both of them for keeping their own daughter. They were saying, `We don't want to go down to Parramatta to have the grandmother further advance her claim on our child.' The couple are still together, working hard and happily making a go of it together. At any rate, the cops turned up, arrested them both, they appeared in court, and the judge said, `This is not very good; I don't like this happening. Don't go around there and arrest this couple again, but you two had better get yourselves down to Parramatta and front the court down there.' They got to Parramatta and found that each of them separately had to pay $500 for the fact that they did not acknowledge the court. I have in front of me the claims against them for $500 each relating not to resisting arrest but whatever the legal term is for failing to appear in court.
Again, I have a letter from the Attorney-General which is basically in the same terms as his previous letter and which says, `Everybody has got rights to these kids. They have to stake their rights and the court has a go at deciding who has got rights. We look at the children and who they would have contact with.' At this stage we have a young couple who are going to give up their child. The current claim is for two weeks twice a year. The grandparents cannot have contact because they are living in Queensland, so the current claim is two periods of two weeks during the year rather than each third Sunday. I do not know where this is going to finish, but I think it is a tragedy to see a couple, who are obviously committed to each other and the wellbeing of their child, being put upon by somebody who, just for the sake of possessiveness, wants to interfere with that relationship.
Source: Hansard - 18th February 2002
Release Date: 19 Mar 2002