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Principal Family Court Judge responds to Backbone Collective

20 April 2017

Principal Family Court Judge Laurence Ryan says Family Court Judges are being painted unfairly as uncaring and unprofessional and as putting people in harm's way in a series of questions being posed by a group called The Backbone Collective.

Judge Ryan has released a statement in which he says a number of questions the collective wants answered are premised on erroneous or flawed interpretations of, and assumptions about, the current legal framework in which the Family Court operates.

He says criticism of the Family Court has recently been aired publicly based on anecdotal experiences of a sample of people who have sought the intervention of the court to help resolved isputes in their personal relationships.

"Some of the accounts contain serious allegations about the safety of the Family Court," Judge Ryan says.

Noting that about 60,000 applications are lodged with the Family Court every year, Judge Ryan says The Backbone Collective, which has gathered and publicised the complaints, has chosen to highlight its concerns by selecting 10 court users to formulate a long series of questions based on their experiences. He says it now demands that every question be answered.

The Backbone Collective describes itself as a national collective for survivors of violence against women. Its questions and statements about the Family Court are published on its website. It says the responses will help it write a "generalised and anonymous" report outlining how the Family Court responds to women when they experience violence and/or abuse.

The survey includes questions such as "(51) Why are there many instances where the lawyer for child appointed by the Family Court is exposed to be lying to the court?", "(58) Why are children forced to see the lawyer for child alone? Why is any fear children have of doing this minimised by judges?", and "(123) Why are mothers blamed for children being afraid or uncomfortable to speak?".

Judge Ryan says many of the questions relate to matters either already being actively considered by Parliament around family violence, or which have been dealt with by Parliament relatively recently.

"Responses to family violence, the care and protection of children and the court's role are rightly a matter of high public interest. Although by convention judges do not engage directly in public or political debate, nor do they wish to stymie or discourage such debate. However, for the community, policymakers and lawmakers to discuss these issues meaningfully it is important that debate starts with accurate information," he says.

"Unfortunately a number of the questions the collective now wants answered are premised on erroneous or flawed interpretations of, and assumptions about, the current legal framework in which the Family Court operates."

Judge Ryan says these include claims that the Family Court is closed, secret and hidden; the Family Court is unaccountable and not independently monitored; and the Family Court minimises allegations of family violence during consideration of parenting access matters.

"As Principal Family Court Judge, it particularly concerns me that Family Court judges are being painted unfairly as uncaring and unprofessional and as putting people in harm's way," his statement says.

"This risks undermining public confidence in the courts and the impartial administration of justice, especially among people who may desperately need the court's help during a distressing period of their lives."

Judge Ryan says it is not appropriate for the judiciary to respond in the way the collective seeks. He says he does not intend to make any further public comment on the collective's campaign and allegations made therein.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019