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  • Treat men as fairly as women
  • By Bettina Arndt
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • 17/07/2002 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 30 articles in 2002 )
Be Grateful Today!
At long last, here's a chance for the Family Court to treat men as fairly as women

The rights of fathers have been denied under Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson, writes Bettina Arndt.

Alastair Nicholson has announced his plans to retire as Chief Justice of the Family Court. The news has rightly been greeted with tributes to the man credited with turning a dispirited, poorly functioning court into a system attracting praise from around the world. But in seeking his replacement, the Government should be mindful of Nicholson's greatest failure: his wilful refusal to acknowledge that his court has been biased against men. Not only has he persistently dismissed the problem but he has inflamed resentment with a series of public relations disasters showing contempt for these genuine grievances.

During Nicholson's tenure, the Family Court has been the subject of numerous inquiries which have found evidence of inequitable treatment, including the failure of the court to enforce child contact orders, false allegations of sexual abuse and violence which resulted in men being denied contact with their children, men's lack of access to legal aid and prejudicial treatment by counsellors and judges. The combined impact of these last year led the Family Law Pathways Advisory Group - of which I was a member - to recommend action to ensure "fair and equitable treatment", particularly in relation to the needs of fathers.

Parliamentarians across the country constantly deal with complaints from constituents about the court. Yet Nicholson's reaction has been to call groups protesting against these issues "dysfunctional, strident, unrepresentative and often irrational", and to brand his critics "sinister" men who seek to control women.

Nicholson played a prominent role in promoting a controversial "research" report, co-authored by his senior legal adviser, Margaret Harrison, which attacked 1995 reforms to the Family Law Act aimed at changing the way the court handled the issue of parenting after divorce. The premise was that the reforms were unnecessary, a remarkable conclusion considering they were enacted only after lengthy consultation with the public and the legal community.

It was provocative for the Family Court to be seen as promoting research which was not only dismissive of public concern about children's welfare but which strenuously sought to deny the effectiveness of the new laws. The bias and distortions apparent in the research were last year exposed in detailed analysis by the Sydney University law professor Patrick Parkinson and Lawrie Moloney from La Trobe University, published in the journal Family Matters.

Then there was the debacle involving the PR film, Do It Yourself Family Law, shown on ABC TV in February featuring litigants who represented themselves in the Family Court. One of the longstanding gripes of divorced men's groups is that many wives have received legal aid, but low-income males face huge legal bills or are forced to represent themselves. With recent cuts in legal aid, there are now more women in the same boat, but, given this long history, for the Family Court to choose a self-represented mother to star in its movie showed remarkable insensitivity. The Family Court judge Robbie Flohm was shown not only being wonderfully helpful to the self-represented litigant but ultimately deciding to remove the child from the paternal grandparents and give custody to the mother, despite her history of substance abuse. How embarrassing for the court when it was revealed that by the time the film was screened, DOCS had removed the child from the mother, returning care to the grandparents.

Under Nicholson, the court just doesn't get it. Rather than acknowledging and responding to obstacles faced by separated men seeking to remain real fathers to their children, their plight has been greeted by Family Court leadership with disdain. Yet there are welcome signs of change. There are fewer "mothers' judges" who never give custody to a man, and a new CEO, Richard Foster, who is making efforts to listen to the concerns of protest groups of all persuasions. Best of all, Nicholson's incompetence at handling relations with the Government and deficiencies within the court has led to the new Federal Magistrates Court, which is offering divorcing men fairer treatment.

The challenge for the Government is to find a replacement for Nicholson who understands that equitable treatment is essential for justice to be seen to be done.

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