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Our media agencies are again awash with reports of the shocking murder/suicide of Hannah Baxter, and their three children, at the hands of her estranged husband, Rowan Baxter. It has been widely reported in the media that in the lead-up to the attacks, Ms Baxter was the victim of a range of behaviours by Mr Baxter that experts in family violence say were red flags for serious risk.

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness by the public of the risks to separating families, sadly through ongoing media reports of extreme violence, often (but not always) perpetrated by fathers against their children, and intimate partners. Frighteningly, these events continue to occur, even when family violence has been identified, and in some instances, where personal protection orders are already in place.

We know that families, particularly women, are most at risk of violence at the time of separation. So how is it that the warning signs telling us there are critical risks for a family continue to be missed? Why is it only after terrible events occur, that we hear people close to victims of family violence say in news reports they were afraid of the perpetrator? Can Police, Courts and the lawyers who help vulnerable clients in circumstances where family violence is present, do more to protect their clients, or does the law itself and our parallel Court systems fall short in the way our existing legal protections are implemented?

These are challenging questions that our parliamentarians and law-enforcement agencies will need to address. Currently, a Joint Select Committee on the Family Law System, appointed in September 2019 has been tasked with considering – amongst a broad range of other matters – aspects of the interaction between our State and Commonwealth Courts and Child Protection Systems. This Committee’s work follows on from the final report of the Australian Law Reform Commission on the Family Law System released in April 2019, that also touched on similar matters, but whose recommendations have not been further considered. These processes, and the critical work to be done in considering recommendations and then implementing change, do not however usually move quickly.

In the meanwhile, as professionals we are reminded by this most recent and terrible tragedy, of the importance of making sure we are properly trained to recognised family violence, to identify it when we see new clients, to educate our clients on the options to protect themselves and their families if there are serious risk factors, and to make sure, if matters come before the Courts, that those risks to our clients and to their children are squarely brought to the Court’s attention.

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Further information

If you have a family law matter, or have any questions regarding the matters raised in this article, please feel free to contact the author, Celia Oosterhoff.

This article is intended to provide general information in summary form on a legal topic, current at the time of publication.  The contents do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. Formal legal advice should be sought in specific circumstances.