Camilla Nelson and Catherine Lumby’s new book Broken is a “devastating account of how Australia’s family courts fail children, families and victims of domestic abuse”. In light of Parliament’s recent decision to merge the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court, they wrote about the legal and ethical imbalance in recognising children’s rights.

“Alex” was 15 years old when her parents went to court. By then, her childhood memories included a recollection of her father “holding a knife to [her mother’s] throat”, and a series of violent altercations that resulted in her mother being taken to hospital with her face “swollen, bleeding and bruised”.

In court, the judge accepted that Alex was thoughtful, articulate and mature beyond her years. He acknowledged that Alex’s “post-traumatic stress symptoms” – including “anxiety”, “panic attacks” and “hypervigilance” – became “elevated” whenever her father was near. He even stated he was “satisfied” that Alex’s wish to have no contact with her father was “genuine”. But the court still forced Alex into child-inclusive mediation with her father followed by a defended trial – because her father wanted it; and the law apparently required it.

Although in Alex’s case, the judge eventually decided that forcing Alex into a relationship with an alleged perpetrator of harm was not in Alex’s “best interest”, this case illustrates the extraordinary asymmetry in a law that states “children have the right to know and be cared for by both their parents” but does not allow mature children – like Alex – the right to rationally and reasonably refuse this relationship when a parent is abusive and violent.

A glaring contradiction

Alex’s case – and others like it – draws attention to the glaring contradiction at the centre of family law that leads to poor decision-making and dangerously spiralling litigation. These are the so called “primary considerations” in the child’s best interest factors set out in Part VII of the Family Law Act – which, at worst, pits the child’s safety against their parents’ desires, or, at best, assumes a child’s interests will be identical with that of their parents, when this is simply not the case.

Perhaps because family law constructs itself as a contest between separating parents, it lags behind other legal jurisdictions in the recognition it gives to children’s rights. In legal matters outside the family courts, parental authority is broadly understood to diminish as a child’s capacity to make decisions for themselves develops. This is most obviously recognised in the right of a mature child to access medical treatment, regardless of their parents’ views. More starkly, the age of criminal liability in Australia is ten – far too young, according to experts and advocates – and the age of criminal responsibility is 14. In this context, it seems wildly incongruous for the family courts to conclude that a mature minor – such as Alex – is incapable of making age-appropriate decisions about where they will live and who they will see.

When Gough Whitlam and Lionel Murphy drew up the Family Law Act – this was not the case. Back in the 1970s mature minors like Alex were given more – not less – rights under Australian Family Law. In the Act as it was drafted in 1975, section 64(1)(b) stated: “where the child has attained the age of 14 years, the court shall not make an order under this Part contrary to the wishes of the child unless the court is satisfied that, by reason of special circumstances, it is necessary to do so”. Until 1983, children over 14 were all but entitled to make their own decisions under the law.

Even after the rights of adolescents were curtailed by an increasingly conservative parliament and judiciary, legal professionals were still inclined to allow teenagers to “vote with their feet” – as family lawyer’s like to phrase it – when it came to making age-appropriate decisions about their lives, unless, of course, their preferences exposed them to serious harm. Then in 2006, “children’s wishes” – renamed “views” – were dropped down the list of things judges needed to consider when making decisions about a child’s life and placed in the “additional considerations” category, where they have remained ever since. Since then, the government has rejected the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission to rewrite Part VII of the Family Law Act to better recognise children’s rights. In the recent Joint Select Inquiry into Australia’s Family Law System children were not even named among the “Parties to Proceedings” that the Joint Select Committee thought appropriate to consult.

Understanding how and why children are silenced, disbelieved or ignored in society matters when considering the decisions of the family court. Cultural attitudes to children profoundly shape the way they are understood by and in the justice system. The belief that judges stand outside society and politics – or, indeed, “above” it – is a fiction. In the family courts, the opposite is true. Over the course of the last half century, the family courts have functioned as a primary forum for a series of highly charged political debates about the institution of the family, and the role that children, women and men play in maintaining or disrupting it. In recent years, debate has been driven by a minority of men’s right’s activists intent on placing their own “rights” and interests above children’s concerns – oblivious to the fact that parenting is not a “right” but a moral responsibility.

Wrong questions

What the family law lacks is a positive ethical framework with which to think about the rights of children. Instead, the ethical norms associated with family law flow from paternalistic ideas about the “vulnerable child”, with “inadequate cognitions” and “erroneous opinions about the world”. In the name of the child’s “best interests” the law steps in to negotiate the competing claims of parents. This occurs in forums in which children’s voices are largely absent, in which children are not permitted to participate, or – if permitted – are not adequately supported to do so. This is not to argue that children who are subject to family law proceedings are not vulnerable, or do not need care and protection – clearly, they do. It is simply to point out that in the absence of a positive ethics or a robust conception of children’s rights, the child’s “best interest” principle merely operates as a proxy for the interests of others, while the ethical norms of “protection” function to conceal the real power relationships that are at stake.

Essentially, the law asks the wrong questions of the separating family. Parenting does not revolve around questions of what is notionally “fair” or “equal” or “neutral” or “impartial” – the sorts of abstract and allegedly androcentric systems of rational analysis in which judges are trained and which have historically underpinned everything from criminal to corporate and property law, and which are echoed in men’s rights activists’ angry demands for their 50 per cent “shares” in a child. Instead, the question that ought to be asked is how can society best meet this particular child’s needs. What a child needs first is recognition – and once children become fully visible in the law, then their other needs will quickly become clear, such as safety, flexibility, a chance to grow, and at least one place filled with nurture and love that is called home.

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How can we improve the ethical imbalance in recognising children’s rights?