Sunday, 28 September 2014

Why I like being a divorce lawyer: "Only one person believed in me- you did, and you changed my life as a result. Thank you."

Many of my colleagues over the years- those who do not do family law- have said that those who do family law are mad, and "I don't know how you can do  it"- before regaling me with their rare, searing family law experiences. "Give me crime, or leases, or commercial work" seems to be the mantra, anything other than family law. They have evidently not experienced the extraordinary personal rewards that come from being a divorce lawyer.

Recently I had the joy of seeing an old colleague retire. My colleague was my supervisor many years ago- in the 80's, and she finally retired at the age of 78. Carmel Murray was known as the Duchess of Divorce- someone who tirelessly fought for her clients.

I mention Carmel, because it was from her inspiration that I decided to become a family lawyer. When I went to uni, family law was ironically the subject I liked the least. It didn't seem like real law- like trusts and equity- but had to do with the sordid topic of divorce. I was much more interested in what REAL law had to offer.

Then reality hit when I started in practice as a graduate law clerk in 1985. Insurance work, commercial work- well it might have been real- but on the whole I was bored rigid. After the rigours of a law degree, I could not believe that the rest of my life would have ended up like this! And then one day Carmel blew into the office. A force of nature, Carmel practised solely in matrimonial matters, as she said back then, and was beloved by her clients. Unlike the clients in insurance and commercial work, family law clients were real people!

Real people going through stresses and strains brought their own rewards. I discovered that I could help real people. This was not like helping a corporation, usually in a fight about money. This was helping those who were going through the pain of separation and divorce- and helping them stand up on their own two feet. At times, I would help my clients rediscover their sense of humour (although of course I was a lawyer, not a counsellor), and most often of all, their sense of decency and self-esteem.

There are few more satisfying acts than helping someone who has no self-esteem, after suffering the knocks of a relationship breakdown, and often an abusive relationship, to be able in the rough and tumble of divorce to be able to stand on their own two feet, and be able to take pride in themselves.

One of the most memorable occasions was acting for an Aboriginal woman who had suffered horrendous domestic violence. She was but a punching bag for her husband, a terrible, violent drunk, who bullied everyone around him, and when he didn't get his own way accused them of racism.

Her separation was more dramatic than most. Her husband was laying into her but that was not enough. He enlisted their teenage sons to help throw their mum over the bonnet of their car. She, and I'll call her Shelley, escaped, with blood pouring from her face. Shelley ended up at the local doctors' surgery. They quickly cleaned and stitched her up, and called the police. The police arrived- and did very little indeed. The police took Shelley to a refuge. The police told her to apply for a DVO. She had no idea what a DVO was. They didn't explain that it was a domestic violence order, or how to get one. They also didn't tell her that it was their duty- under law- to apply for one on her behalf if they reasonably suspected that she had been the subject of domestic violence. They also didn't tell her that she could press criminal charges against her husband.

Instead, Shelley was conveyed to a place of safety at least, the refuge. There she got help to apply for a protection order, when I was asked to help her, which I did gladly. Although Shelley's husband was going to contest her application, he arrived late at court, and Shelley was able to obtain the vital protection she needed.

Shelley then sought to have her husband charged with assault. Despite the clearest evidence that she had been grievously assaulted, police refused to take any action. I phoned the cop in question- to be given the lecture about why he was smart, and my client and I were dumb, how he was a police officer, and I a mere lawyer, etc. Well, that had the predictable response- the tersely worded letter of complaint by me about the cop. I didn't want the cop to lose his job. I just wanted him to do his job- the job that he had sworn an oath of office to perform. If I had sworn an oath of office as a solicitor, and he had sworn a similar oath as a police officer, the least he could do was to give me some respect and courtesy, and do the same for those seeking the protection of the law. The least he could do for Shelley, and the interests of justice, was to investigate the complaint of assault, and if the evidence stacked up- to charge Shelley's husband.

Following the complaint being made- and resolved- the police officer charged Shelley's husband with serious assault. That was not the end of that. Shelley's husband pleaded not guilty, and even dragged the kids in as witnesses to say how their mother had lied. They were disbelieved. Shelley's husband was convicted, and luckily for him, he was not jailed.

And on it went. Shelley wanted to see her kids. Off we trooped to the Family Court. It was one of those cases that leaves a bad flavour in the mouth. The expert who interviewed the sons said quite clearly that they were overborne by their dad, when they said that they wanted nothing to do with Shelley- but that there was little that he or the court could do. Reality hit home. With a sense of resignation Shelley stopped the court proceedings.

And then 7 years later on a Tuesday morning, completely out of the blue, Shelley phoned me, to thank me for what I had done. I said that I hadn't done much- we had got the protection order, her husband had not been jailed, and most bitterly of all, she had not been able to spend time with her boys. I had tried my best- law is the art of the possible- but we had not succeeded in having her husband made truly accountable for his actions, nor in allowing the boys to have a relationship with her.

Shelley told me that her life had turned around. She was now married to a man who was loving and respectful, kind and not a violent drunk. Shelley had managed to score full time work- extraordinary given that she had only got to Grade 3 at school. But most amazing of all, Shelley's sons were now living with her. They too had managed to escape the clutches of their dad, and moved to live with their loving mum.

Shelley then came to the crux of the call- why she had phoned me was to thank me. I said that there didn't seem much for her to thank me- given the outcome. Shelley told me that I was wrong. What I had taught her was to believe in herself. "No one believed in me, not even me. Only one person believed in me- you did, and you changed my life as a result. Thank you."

3 comments:

Debbie Hewitt said...

Hear, hear Stephen

Anonymous said...

I'm not a person who leaving comment on any of blogs but I had to leave a comment on this blog.

I randomly found your blog while I was searching divorce related information, and I TRULY touched by your believe in your professional not just as a job and touched by your humbleness. I wish I could afford to get help by a warm-hearted lawyer like you as I am painfully going through divorcing from passively aggressive ex husband all by myself with 2 young kids...

I could related to how the shameful police officers did reckless job on DV victim as I also experienced their most disgraceful job performance.

I am really glad there are people like you. :)

Claire said...

Thank you for writing such great blog entry. Your words (and Shelley's words) are motivating. As a lawyer recently embarked upon a career in family law (a good switch from commercial), I agree with what you said - we are helping real people!