The federal laws very desperately need to change.
Eleanor* knew a custody dispute over her three children with her former partner in the Family Court was going to be difficult.
But she had no idea she would be cross-examined by the man who raped and beat her over the course of their 11-year relationship.
It wasn’t until she turned up to court on the day she was to give evidence that she learned he had dismissed his lawyer and was representing himself.
Unlike the criminal courts, the Family Court – which comes under the federal jurisdiction – does not protect victims of domestic violence from being cross-examined by their abusive ex-partners.
Though she had been granted an intervention order against the man in the same court the week before, but the judge still allowed him to cross-examine her.
“The experience was horrendous. It stripped me to my absolute core,” she said.
Eleanor said she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after more than a decade of abuse from the man.
“Being within a short distance of him in the courtroom invoked a physiological reaction in me, let alone him having all his power back and asking me questions directly,” she said.
“It was soul destroying for me.”
Eleanor said she was the victim of “quite extreme” emotional, physical and sexual violence at the hands of her partner.
“The police said to me that if I stayed would have been dead within a year because the violence had been escalating,” she said.
“It was toxic, but I had invested so much into the relationship. It’s like shares – you can see them plummeting, but you can’t pull out because you’ve put so much into them, until there’s nothing left.”
She now has to share custody of her three children with the man.
And she said she wouldn’t dare appeal the case or seek any amendments to the co-parenting order for fear of facing him in court again.
Eleanor says she didn’t think she was going to make it through the week of her hearing, and now she wants to change the system – which she says is like “a stick constantly prodding a really bad, open wound” – so others don’t have to go through what she did.
And her local member is on board.
Victorian Independent MP Cathy McGowan recently introduced a private member’s motion calling upon Federal Attorney-General George Brandis to bring federal protections in line with those at a state and territory level by ensuring victims of family violence are not questioned in court by their abusers.
Just days after its launch, a petition by Fair Agenda has gathered more than 5000 signatories.
“The laws need to be updated urgently,” Women’s Legal Services Australia senior lawyer Pasanna Mutha said.
“There are a growing number of unrepresented people in the family law system, which means the risk of being directly cross-examined by your abuser is now more likely than ever before.”
Eleanor said she wants the law to change so that abusive former partners have legal representation in the Family Court – a requirement that would actually benefit both parties.
“It’s not about stopping fathers from having access to their children,” she points out.
It’s about protecting the vulnerable people – mostly women – who have suffered enough at the hands of their exes.
And she won’t rest until new laws are a reality.