Local, Independant and Effective

Family Violence Act Amendment 2018

Posted September 10, 2018


The Family Law Act Amendment 2018 will help to reduce the enormous stress vulnerable witnesses face during cross-examination in court proceedings. Credit must be given to 'Eleanor' who had the courage and persistence to call for this change. I am calling on parliament to support the amendment.


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (17:58):  For my colleagues: what an opportunity to stand in this house tonight. I want to tell you a story. As a newly elected member of parliament for north-east Victoria, one of my first constituent meetings in Wodonga was with Eleanor. Eleanor came to me and said, 'Cathy, we need to change the law, and you as my member of parliament need to help me do this.' So it is with enormous pleasure tonight that I stand in this house and say to Eleanor, 'Finally we're there.' I would also like to acknowledge the support of my staff member, Karen Keegan; previous Chief Justice Diana Bryant; and, in particular, the Women's Legal Service for the work they've done on this; and I name Angela Lynch and Pasanna Mutha for their work in getting us to this stage.

Colleagues, tonight I want to read some of Eleanor's words because I think she tells the story of why this legislation is so important. 'My name is Eleanor, and I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. Section 221 of the family law restricts my ability to identify myself, particularly in the media, and in all the interviews I've undertaken the name Eleanor to ensure I do not breach this federal law. This law was introduced to protect children in family law proceedings, but unfortunately it has also been a factor in muting the victims of crime and their experience in courts once they leave their perpetrator.'

Eleanor writes: 'I am someone who has had direct experience of escaping a perpetrator of violence, then having to deal with the complexity of the system in keeping myself and my children safe from the abuser. My ex-partner was sentenced, finally after five years, this last January. Throughout the last five years I have been subjected to intense system trauma both via the Victorian system and the federal family law.'

Eleanor goes on to tell the story of what happened to her in the intervening years, but this is the bit I'd like to read into the Hansard tonight: 'The criminal system and civil system for intervention orders and the family law system are not aligned. Navigating your way through these systems is complicated, emotionally draining and, dare I say, dangerous. After a contested hearing I was granted an intervention order on the grounds it was not safe for me to have my perpetrator near me. I remember looking over to the mantel in the room where a quote by Henry VIII was in pride of place. He too was a rapist. A week later I was back in that same courtroom for family law proceedings. I was sick to my stomach to discover on day 1 of the hearing that he, my previous partner, had become a self-litigant and was going to be directly cross-examining me. That day I stood on the stand and the Federal Court allowed him to directly cross-examine me. It was a massive slap in the face. How could they give my rapist his power over me back? He asked questions I was forced to answer. He was only metres from me. How could this happen when another magistrate had already said that this circumstance was not appropriate or safe? It is this system flaw that I was able to identify as a major flaw and obstacle in my recovery from trauma. Having your rapist stand only metres from you, asking intimate and personal questions about your relationship, your parenting, your social media account—every aspect of your personal life—is invasive, disempowering and cruel. This person does not deserve the right to cross-examine his victim.'

She goes on: 'This is what drove me to seek support in reforming the family laws that are massive obstacles to women escaping violence. I created an online support group called Tea Leaves, named from the quote of Eleanor Roosevelt, "Women are like tea leaves. You don't know their strength until they are in hot water." This group enabled me to have a place to discuss issues and find solutions and share those solutions with other women like me. I have listened to the journey of others, and all have the same link—that same thread of system abuse that they are faced with when the family law process is started.'

Eleanor writes: 'I began writing letters to all who would listen. I have corresponded and met with federal leaders and representatives. I have received sympathy and empathy for the predicament I and other victims have been placed in, but what I haven't received'—at that time—'is real action by the federal government on this issue. It seems simple to me. No person, male or female, should be cross-examined by the person who raped or beat them. When I had no joy from local members of parliament or from the Attorney-General, I began to turn to the media. My letters and emails came before the likes of Angela Lynch and Pasanna Mutha, who have taken on this issue in the media and at high levels of government. These women have been relentless and beside me in addressing this flaw. Working with the WLSA has helped me to politicise this issue and keep it in the foreground of discussion in a variety of forums. Angela and Pasanna were able to provide the legal knowledge of how this change could occur. I was an example of why it should occur.'

Eleanor continues: 'Meeting Sally Sara from the Lateline program was life-changing for me. She listened to my story and cried with me over the injustice of the trauma of not only being cruelly abused by my intimate partner but the system trauma I had suffered at the hands of the government. Sally gave me a voice, and this was the first time I had to use a false name, due to section 221. I chose Eleanor. In the media, the voice of Eleanor has been loud and it has been heard. The headline is catchy, I guess, and a shock for many. How can our community allow a woman to be cross-examined by her abuser? It sounds dreadful, doesn't it? But not dreadful enough for the government to amend its laws and use other avenues to stop this event from happening to criminals on a daily basis. The voice of Eleanor has enabled me to speak on behalf of those who have no voice, those who have been unable to fight for change as they are fighting too hard to survive each day.

It's enabled me to talk to important people who each day deal with victims of violence who are restricted and challenged in a system that should be supporting them and helping them to recover and progress as a protective agent. While we have laws that force mothers to be cross-examined by their perpetrator and then be given family orders that force her to co-parent with her rapist, we are eroding a woman's ability to heal and become the strong parent she needs to be for her children. This is not about stopping fathers having access to their children; it is about protecting the vulnerable from further trauma and abuse by their perpetrator.' Eleanor finishes by saying, 'I will not rest until this law is amended and I know that what I went through has some purpose.'

Colleagues, it gives me enormous personal pleasure and great pride to be able to stand in parliament today and be part of a combined effort from both the government and the opposition in passing this amendment to the law. But, in doing so, I would particularly like to knowledge the work of the Labor Party in coming to the fore. I won't name your team, but you've done a fantastic job in helping Independents like me get the support we need. It was when you guys came on board that we actually got the traction we needed, so thank you for that. But I want to say to Eleanor and, if I could through her, to all the members of my community: it really is worth going and seeing your member of parliament. It is really worthwhile saying: 'We've got a problem with this law. Can you help me fix it up?' And, sure, for someone newly elected like me, I go, 'Oh my word, how do we do that?' But, through your work Eleanor, through the work of the legal service, through the work of the very many women you worked with and through the fantastic support of the media—and I too would like to give a call out to the ABC and say thank you so much for giving voice to many, many people on this issue—it works. Then you get to the parliament, and we are going to vote on this legislation tonight, and I hope, with the changes that we need to see regarding funding, which clearly is so important—you can't make changes at this level without putting the money into the legal system and the community legal services to make sure that the staff and the support are there; it's so obvious—we will be able to bring this law in as a combined parliament.

To the people of Australia, I say: trust us because, sometimes—more often than not—we really can deliver the changes that we need to fix up the problems in the system and to be the representatives that you really want us to be. So Eleanor, thank you for your work, for your dedication and for the persistence you've shown in being such a strong spokesperson, and to my colleagues: I look forward to your support with this legislation tonight.

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