Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Inspirational South African family law conference

Last week I was lucky enough to be the keynote speaker at the 19th annual South African family law conference, held in Cape Town.

I spoke about surrogacy.

I had assumed that the conference would comprise South African lawyers, and a few ring ins- such as a few Brits and me, the lone Aussie.

Well all that was true. The British contingent included William Longrigg from London and Rachael Kelsey from Edinburgh. William is the President and Rachael the secretary of the International Academy of Family Lawyers, the most exclusive leading group of family lawyers in the world. I am a member.

But in addition were the surprises. I did not expect that others would be attending, but instead there were lawyers also from Tunisia, Malawi, Ghana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. One of the topics covered at length was that of domestic violence. The themes were all too familiar, but we have it pretty good in this country, by comparison.

Here goes with domestic violence:

  • a speaker from Zambia described out of control, pervasive domestic violence. The impression gained is that unlike tourist films, domestic violence is at rates similar to say Papua New Guinea, rather than much lower rates seen in Australia (with the exception of Aboriginal communities).
  • a speaker from Tunisia praised that country's efforts to get women and men on to an even keel, especially when it came to custody disputes and divorce, however there is a way to go, and it may fail given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism there.
  • protection orders are made in South Africa- and the basis can be psychological abuse, not just physical violence.
  • in some parts of South Africa, police officers and judges are keen to and do enforce the law, including protection orders based on psychological abuse.
  • However, in other parts, they don't. I heard complaints from several lawyers about the failures of the justice system in their area to uphold the law and to protect woemn and children's rights. One lawyer told me of repeated efforts to breach perpetrators, but that police are simply not interested in prosecuting, even with overwhelming evidence.
  • There is no specialist family law system in South Africa, resulting in widely variable results. Currently 713 courts deal with children's matters.
  • The South African Law Reform Commission proposes that there be specialist family courts, so that there can be better outcomes. However this call was met with comments that "we can't afford it" in circumstances where many courts do not have power, water, or internet connectivity.
  • There were many calls for training of judges. The comment was made by several lawyers that judges issue judgments that simply don't reflect the law. Ouch!
  • The South African Law Reform Commission noted that while there is use of arbitration in South Africa (as opposed to its low use here), there is very little mediation (unlike in Australia) and may be an Australian style solution might be the fix.

What was apparent to me was that the challenges in South Africa and beyond are being addressed, bit by bit- along the lines of three steps forward, and two back, but with dogged determination to change. It is a story of optimism in the face of adversity. Whatever challenges we have in Australia are mild by comparison.

It goes to remind me about the Berlin Wall. Many Australians look at the difficulties and give up. When I was growing up, the Soviet empire in eastern Europe was a fact of life. Joseph Stalin might have moved on, but his Empire prevailed. The symbol of that Empire was the Berlin Wall, which seemed to be a permanent display of evil. And then one day it fell, and the world was not the same since. If the Berlin Wall can fall, then we can get progress on domestic violence.

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