A former barrister was shocked at the way the Family Court treated her after she left an abusive relationship. She shares her firsthand account of the Family Court process.

I was once not as articulate and resolute as I am today; I was once a young vulnerable teenage girl who foolishly got involved with a significantly older man who preyed upon my vulnerabilities.

While I was ultimately able to leave that relationship, the two children I had tied me to this man. The Family Court’s uncompromising view that his coercive, controlling behaviour and domestic abuse are not relevant to our proceedings has meant more than a decade of further trauma through the courts.

I was just a teenager when I met my ex-husband; he was already in his 30s. I had survived significant childhood traumas and a chaotic early family life. As a consequence, I was a vulnerable girl when we met. We married within a year and I fell pregnant almost immediately, a set of circumstances I have since learned is fairly common in relationships that later become abusive – which ours did, characterised by psychological abuse and coercive control, with instances of physical and sexual abuse.

In 2008, at the age of 23, I somehow found the strength to leave. The first two years post separation were a particular kind of hell, with my ex-partner attempting to undermine my new employment as a lawyer, stalking me and breaking into my apartment. He also threatened to kill himself if I didn’t return to him, physically assaulted me on a number of occasions and raped me.

When it was finally clear to him I would never return, he then began a more subtle campaign of stalking and harassment, which continues to the present day, enabled, in large part, by a Family Court utterly unable to recognise and appropriately respond to cases involving allegations of domestic violence or abuse.

Family Court lacks expertise

I have significant professional expertise on family violence and abuse outside of my own personal experiences, including my years as a barrister and work with NGOs in the field of family and sexual violence or abuse. I hold masters degrees with top honours in law and human rights; I have undertaken post-legal career training in sociology and psychology, as well as spent years reading and researching extensively in the area of family violence and abuse, particularly as this relates to the Family Court. I have pointed to this experience and been told directly by a judge that my ‘opinions’ are not welcome. I have been told my ‘belief’ in coercive control and family violence or abuse being key and relevant factors to understanding my case is a fallacy.

From my personal, professional and academic experience, many Family Court lawyers and judges lack knowledge around these issues, including with respect to the impact and relevance of trauma upon victims and the ability (or inability) of family violence or abuse survivors to effectively engage in Family Court processes. The Family Court is either ignorant of or refuses to engage with the academic research of dozens of analysts who are highly critical of Family Court approaches as they relate to cases involving family violence or abuse, both in New Zealand and internationally.

A significant change is needed in the Family Court and it needs to be led by those outside the system – Family Court professionals are either not willing or able to front up to their lack of knowledge and expertise in this area and to instigate the appropriate reforms needed to look after those already traumatised by their relationships. Family Court lawyers and judges are not qualified to lead any change in the Family Court, so communities and politicians must be willing to intervene.

Domestic violence, not ‘high conflict’

There have now been 51 different applications filed by my ex-partner or directly related to proceedings filed by him. The continued demand that I take time away from my children, to read and respond to the hundreds of pages of documents still before the court, to draft one reply and then another and to then appear in court is simply awful. To be threatened, coerced and gaslit by judicial figures whose misplaced sense of expertise and entitlement to make inappropriate decisions over my life is yet another form of abuse.

I have repeatedly explained this situation to the court and repeatedly asked that the court intervene to stop my ex-partner’s continued interference in my life, including that they recognise and appropriately respond to his vexatious litigation, continued stalking and harassment. After literally hundreds of documents and hearings, which have at times threatened to consume my life, last month I received yet another summons to appear before the court.

To put this in perspective, I re-married in 2014 and have been with my current partner for almost ten years. I have an extremely busy and fulfilling life outside of the harms perpetrated by my ex. Until 2016 I had worked as a lawyer for the better part of a decade, having begun a law degree as a single teenage mum, and qualified in early 2008. Following the birth of my third child I made the decision to leave practice to become a fulltime mum and have not returned to professional employment since.

Alongside the already extensive commitments associated with the care of my four children, I also pursue part time study and undertake volunteer work, as well as the odd paid side gig. Put bluntly, there is zero time in my world for any kind of continued unnecessary engagement with an abusive ex-partner I left a dozen years ago.

I have made this submission to the Family Court on numerous occasions and had it ignored or rejected. My case falls into a category labelled ‘high conflict’, where the Family Court, with little or no genuine analysis, simply decides both parties are as bad as each other and are treated accordingly. I have since learned the Family Court frequently makes the mistake of conflating ‘domestic violence’ with ‘high conflict,’ ignoring the power imbalances and continued abuse people like my ex-husband wield against their victims.

Litigation a form of abuse

The most recent Family Court proceedings began back in 2016, when I was still practicing as a lawyer. These are related to child support and over the years numerous applications have been filed by my ex-partner on this issue, with an incredible variety of injunctions and disclosure sought in relation to my personal finances and those of anyone close to me. My ex-partner alleges my purportedly ‘high income’ as a lawyer means I should pay him a significant amount of child support – although of course it has now been four years since I left practice.

When my ex-partner began the original child support proceedings, I notably also had majority care of our children: my daughter lived with me fulltime and we shared care of our son. My ex-partner’s original child support application occurred against a backdrop of my having more physical care of our children than him. I also paid for the majority of our children’s personal expenses, recognising my employment as a lawyer enabled me to do so at the time.

Those four years, where I have been a fulltime mother and not receiving any significant personal income, has not stopped the flow of applications, with co-requisite (and always extensive) supporting documentation, continuing through to this year. Throughout that time, I have received continued demands from the Family Court to appear, respond and hand over documents that set out intimate aspects of my life to a man who abused me, raped me and has made me fear for my life; a man who continues to stalk me, so that a dozen years later my anxiety over his continued presence in my life still haunts many of my personal decisions today.

My ex-partner does not need child support. He owns and lives on a lifestyle property I signed over to him when I left: I sought no relationship property settlement, preferring to avoid unnecessary conflict and to move on with my life. He also has access to significant trust funds and has recently subdivided sections of his lifestyle property, as well as running a number of companies.

By contrast, I have no assets and come from a relatively impoverished background, with my adult life begun as a single teenage mother. Today, I live a comfortable and happy life, but beyond ensuring my children’s needs are met, money is not and has never been a central focus for me.

Despite making this situation absolutely clear to the Family Court, my motives have always been met with suspicion. Demands for engagement have continued unabated. The court has told me directly and repeatedly that my allegations of domestic abuse and continued stalking are irrelevant, despite the ongoing impact that they have on my life, as well as that of my children. When I have raised the notion of ‘procedural stalking’ or ‘paper abuse’, relying on academic research around these issues, the Family Court has rubbished my concerns.

Failure to protect victims

Utilising my professional and academic experience, I have repeatedly pointed to the robust body of research that demonstrates growing concerns around the Family Court’s inability to recognise and acknowledge the relevance of domestic abuse in proceedings, as well as its failure to protect victims of abuse.

I have told the court of the cumulative effect of being on the receiving end of ongoing coercive control, stalking and domestic abuse over more than a decade, and the combined effect of the court’s coercive demands that I continue to re-engage. I have pointed to research on trauma, including the impact it has on women and children in situations like mine, and reminded the court of its obligation to protect us – all to no end. This demand to continue to engage is a massive issue with the Family Court and, frankly, continues the abuse.

The growing tenacity of my personality has allowed me to further my life in other ways, but there should be no mistake that I and my children remain haunted by the horrifying approaches taken by so-called professionals in this field. Knowledge of the struggle faced by women and children in similar situations, with fewer tools than I, keeps me up at night.

Empathy, compassion and understanding should be a given in Family Court. In cases involving coercive control, family violence and abuse, it is shocking Family Court professionals do not understand this simple necessity.

* The writer’s name has been withheld

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