That is how Bettina Arndt was motivated to break one of society’s strongest taboos: criticising those mothers who deny their children contact with their fathers, and their silent accomplice the family court.
"I’ve always known about this issue, and Justice Walsh agreed to speak out. I knew this was a very powerful weapon to blow it all open. It was a gift, and he was very brave to do that. He’s suffering a lot of repercussions."
Chief Justice of the Family Court Alistair Nicholson’s response to Arndt’s devastating three-part expose‚ was to "shoot the messenger". He said the claims of "bias against men by a largely male bench was nonsensical". He accused Arndt of "considerable ignorance" as to how the Family Court works and selectively citing "a tiny number" of judgements to support her claims. He dismissed the comments of ex-justice Geoffrey Walsh, quoted extensively by Arndt, as "the idiosyncratic view of one retired judge".
Most surprisingly, he said the articles could give "the false impression that men cannot expect justice from the legal system" and that "the consequence that I fear most is that her articles will unwarrantedly increase men's frustration and escalate the likelihood of such violence occurring".
I spoke to Bettina Arndt shortly after the judge’s response appeared in print. "It’s an absolute joke for Justice Nicholson to accuse me of inciting violence," she said. "Everybody knows that in the majority of cases where violence does erupt it’s over denial of access".
"Justice Nicholson chooses to believe that the Family Court is doing its job fairly. He says that under the new Act more men are getting custody, but he doesn’t address the issue I was writing about, which is fathers’ contact with their children. That’s the main issue as far as I’m concerned".
Rather than attacking Arndt’s journalistic credentials, I would like to see Nicholson propose an inquiry into her allegations. Such an inquiry could answer some fundamental questions and put an end to the endless claims and counterclaims that characterise this debate. If Arndt really is wrong, then it would be very beneficial to set the public’s mind at ease.
First, I would like to test Nicholson’s claim that stories about injustice in the family court are just a symptom of a few "disaffected men" and that by and large people are happy with Family Court outcomes. Let’s actually survey a random sampling of divorcees, including those men who do not fight for custody because they are advised not to waste their time and money.
I’d also be most interested to see a proper, large-scale study of post-divorce fathers to find out the reasons why so many fathers do not maintain close relationships with their non-custodial children. How many men do this because they don’t care for their offspring, and how many would desperately like to but are locked out by the court or their ex?
How many mothers "sacrificed" their careers to raise children at their husband’s insistence, and how many men sacrificed their family life at their wife’s insistence?
How many men walked out on their family; how many were pushed?
Nicholson said "It was therefore troublesome to see, in her first two articles, children represented as nothing more than the bounty of a battle." Many men would say it’s the Family Law Act that sets up children as "the bounty of a battle", because the parent who gets custody also gets a host of financial benefits. Let’s investigate a presumption of joint custody as an alternative to the current win/lose scenario.
He also condemned Arndt for representing "women as false accusers of male domestic violence and child abuse". Again, the facts must come out. How often are false accusations made? How often are they punished?
And there’s Nicholson’s claim that "the mere making of an allegation of domestic violence or child abuse is never decisive". Let’s quantify this too; invite any man who’s lost their child through a mere allegation to come forward. How many would it be? Zero, as the Judge claims? A handful? Hundreds?
Some facts would bring a breath of fresh air to this argument, but I’m not holding my breath for the announcement of such an inquiry.
Even so, Arndt’s journalism has meant that many men, and women, who have felt isolated and abandoned by the justice system realise that they are not alone. "I’ve got some very sweet letters from men who say they cried and cried and were just grateful that someone’s listening to them," Arndt told me. "People have sent me their huge case histories, even affidavits. Just terrible stories. Some people said ‘you’ve given me new hope - I’ll go back and try again,’ and part of me thinks ‘Oh no, I hope they won’t be disappointed’. I do encourage men to feel it’s not hopeless because I think that’s part of the change process. What I heard from a lot of lawyers and mediators is that men who believe they have a chance negotiate from a stronger position and that is producing change itself. There is new recognition that children need both parents and that is filtering through to women and they may be more willing to be more reasonable about this issue".
Quotes from Bettina Arndt’s series in the Sydney Morning Herald:
I WANT MY DADDY
October 12 1996
. . . There's no doubt injustice has been done to men. The classic situation is the good father who sees his children every day and then Bang. The couple separates and the court gives him every second weekend. To have a dear little child that you love, and suddenly your contact to him is so restricted. It's a basic cause for the anger so many men feel about the Family Court."
Familiar words? The bitterness and sense of injustice experienced by fathers over their treatment in the Family Court is a constant theme in our society. Yet this time the complaint comes from the heart of the Family Court - an exclusive interview with Geoffrey Walsh, recently retired after 18 years as a judge in the Victorian Family court. . .
COURT IN THE ACT
October 14 1996
. . . The Family Court's failure to deal with breaches of access orders has been, without a doubt, the greatest cause of its troubled reputation. The court's impotence in the face of the continuing defiance by women of access orders has a long history. The court hasn't hesitated to severely punish men for non- payment of maintenance orders or absconding with their children — in the past, men have been imprisoned for such offences. But when it comes to taking sanctions against custodial parents who deny access to their children, judges have tradition-ally gone to water. . .
. . . [Many couples] manage to work out their own solutions to the thorny issue of parenting after divorce. These are solutions far removed from the usual custodial mother and Weekend Dad roles...
The Family Court's past handling of the welfare of children after divorce has been a disaster, as evidenced by large numbers of fathers losing contact with their children. Consequently Parlia-ment has directed a change towards shared parenting, seeking to ensure children's contact with both parents.
The reaction from many judges and lawyers has been to throw up their hands in horror... Their cynical reaction to the notion of shared parenting stems from years spent in the trenches, surrounded by divorcing people at logger-heads. . .
If you would like to ask Peter about men's politics, you can do so by visiting his Special Adviser's area by clicking on Special Advisers in the menu bar below.