I take a deep breath as I start to write this. I’m wading in, where many have been this week, and hope I don’t end up in over my head.
Yes, I’m talking about the 4 Italian sisters from the Sunshine Coast. The 4 young girls and their family at the centre of a Family Court matter that has suddenly become very loud and very public.
Our laws in the Family Law Act are specifically designed to protect families from the very public scrutiny that has happened for this family. I expect that this very public uncovering of a bitter family feud has felt a little bit like walking outside your house to find your neighbours standing in their front yard hurling abuse at each other. Normally, Family Court disputes, like your neighbours’ arguments, are kept indoors. In the Family Court. This family decided they weren’t going to play by That Rule and brought other people over, effectively to film and replay the argument.
If you’re reading this for a blow by blow discussion of the law, you should move on now. I’m leaving that for others. But I don’t think I can properly explain the questions I’m wrestling with, without setting up the scene. The short version of the law here is that a bunch of countries around the world have signed the Hague Convention about a ton of things. One of those things says “if kids are taken from a country, then any family law disputes, will be heard in the country they came from”. There are, of course, conditions and definitions and many more finer details. But generally, that’s the deal. Parenting disputes are to be heard and dealt with in the country the children came from.
This case, that has captured so much of the public’s attention this week, is incredibly sad. As are all Family Court disputes. For this family, the first decision was made in June of last year. A Judge of the Family Court heard the evidence, considered the law, and decided that the children must be returned to Italy. Not necessarily that they have to live there forever. He simply decided that the Hague Convention applies, which means the children need to go back to Italy and their mother needs to raise her concerns there and apply to move to Australia with the children. You know, follow The Rules.
The mother obviously wasn’t happy with this decision and she lodged an Appeal. As she is entitled to do. An appeal asks another Judge, and sometimes a panel of Judges, to review the decision of the first Judge. To check that the first Judge didn’t make a mistake with the law.
In this case, the months trundled by, and the Appeal was heard. The decision of the first Judge was “reviewed” by the Appeal Judges, who decided that he had applied the right law, using the right tests, and that his decision was sound. This meant that the Order that the children return to Italy was, essentially, reinstated.
Then the media blasts us from every direction. And here is where my questions begin. I understand that the mother of these children is upset. She wants to stay here in Australia with the children. She made her arguments to the Court, and then to an Appeal Court, and the Court decided against her. Like the Court does every single day, in every Courtroom around the country.
Every single day decisions are made by Judges that at least one party (if not both parties!) do not like. And that’s me putting a polite lawyer spin on it. They “do not like the decision” is probably something more like they cannot believe that anyone in their sane mind would have made that decision. Ever.
After all, most of the families wind their way slowly, ever so slowly through the family law system. So by the time they end up in front of a Judge who is ready to hear their matter and make a final decision, they’re usually pretty convinced that what they want is THE only fair decision that could be made. And every day, in every Courtroom, Judges listen to 2 (or more) people who are utterly convinced that what they want is right. But the Judge has to decide on only one outcome. Someone “wins” and someone “loses”. The winner often feels like they’ve lost as well, but that’s another post for another day.
So everyday, there are people walking out of Courts, all around the country feeling like they’ve lost. Like they haven’t been heard. Often Ordered to do things that they are so strongly opposed to, that they’ve stood in a queue for a year or more to fight against that very thing happening.
Our system, our society, relies on those people, those people who have lost and whose hearts have been broken, to follow The Rules. To follow the decision of the Court. To allow time (and therapy of many forms) to begin to heal their wounds.
Why has the media chosen to engage the public in support of a family who are refusing to play by The Rules? Do The Rules not apply to them? If not, why not? Is it because the girls (who we saw on the front page of a capital city newspaper) are pretty. Is it because they are girls? Is it because their father isn’t Australian? Who knows.
If they do not have to follow The Rules, then why should anyone else? And yet, changes to law and to our society and to the behaviours we tolerate only happen when people stand at the edge and say “I won’t follow That Rule” any more. It always looks like it made sense when we look backwards. But how that does look at the time? Does it look like this? How do we work out which Rules can be broken, and when they can be broken, and which ones must be followed, no matter what we feel about them.
I don’t have answers. Just more questions. Maybe you can help me.