What happened to the Edwards family?

In 2016, Olga Edwards, the mother to two teenage children; Jennifer and Jack, left John Edwards, the children’s father, and initiated family law proceedings. An Independent Children’s Lawyer was appointed on behalf of the children.

Olga outlined several incidents of family violence perpetrated by John in her court material, including her fear that one day she would find her child dead as ‘John could never control his temper’.[1]

John had a long history of family violence, including stalking previous partners and children. In February 2017, John lay in wait at Olga’s yoga class, unbeknown to her. Although Olga reported the incident to police, an IVO was not taken out on her behalf.

As details from the inquest into the deaths of the Edwards children continue to be publicised, it is reported that in February 2018, the parties agreed to final parenting orders which were proposed to the Family Court and subsequently made. It is reported that the parties agreed to John spending time with the children each week.

Shortly after the trial, in July 2018, John followed Jennifer home from school. He then shot and killed his two children, who hid from him under a desk in their home. John returned to his home and committed suicide. Sadly, Olga took her own life five months later.

The circumstances surrounding the death of the Edwards children are extremely tragic and horrifying.

Sydney Morning Herald[1] recently published an article on the killing of the Edwards children by their father. The article queried whether the removal of ‘equal shared parental responsibility’ requirement for parents under the Family Law Act might have changed Olga’s experience in the Family Court and prevented an order for John to have ongoing time with the children, and stopped this disaster.

Is the article in the Sydney Morning Herald correct in their contemplation?

We look at this issue and examine the presumption.

What does the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility really mean?

It means that the court will presume that parents have equal decision-making power and responsibility in making major decisions for their children, such as education, health and living arrangements UNLESS  there is reasonable evidence of family violence or child abuse. This does not include day-to-day decisions about the children.

Essentially, one parent cannot make an important long-term decision for a child without the other parent’s agreement. The policy idea behind this presumption is to encourage parents to co-parent together.

But it is just a presumption, does that mean it does not always apply?

That is correct. The court will not apply the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility if it believes on reasonable grounds that either parent has engaged in abuse of the child or family violence.

In addition, the presumption is rebutted if the Court forms the view that it is not in the child’s best interest to do so.

The main focus of the Family Law Act is on the best interests of the children, rather than parental rights. In determining what is in the child’s best interests, the Family Law Act considers the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with each parent and the need to protect the child from being subject to or exposed to harm, neglect, abuse or family violence.

All parents must file a Notice of Risk that outlines their allegations of child abuse or family violence, if they exist. Parents will also need to provide the court with reasonable evidence of family violence. This can be IVOs, police charges or another party or their own evidence as a witness.

Does equal shared parental responsibility mean equal time with each parent?

No, it does not. The Family Law Act notes that the presumption is only relevant to parental responsibility and is not a presumption as to the amount of time either parent spends with the child.

A court will only provide equal time or ‘shared custody’ if the parents agree to do so, or it is in the child’s best interest.

Would the removal of the presumption lead to different parenting orders in Olga’s case?

In relation to  Sydney Morning Herald article contemplation, would the removal of the presumption have led to Olga having a different experience in the Family Court and stopped an order for John to have ongoing time with the children? It might have but it is very difficult to pin the blame on this provision.

The Family Court was only given the opportunity to consider the proposed orders by the parents and ensure that they were in the best interests of the children.  There was no judgement by the Family Court. The parties, through their legal representation, would have had to advise the court how the proposed orders would protect the children from family violence.

The intrinsic details of Olga’s case have not yet been publicised, so it is difficult to comment further.

However, Olga herself was a solicitor and she represented by the highest seniority of counsel. It is likely that Olga understood the meaning of the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility prior to her agreeing to the final parenting orders. It is unlikely that Olga agreed for John to have ongoing contact with the children because she was concerned that the Family Court would apply the presumption and allow John to share equal decision-making power about major issues relating to their children.The inquest into the death of the Edwards children will likely hold this answer.

One hypothesis is that Olga’s agreement for John to spend time with the children may have been a consequence of the lack of support she received by police and the Independent Children’s Lawyer but John did not kill his children whilst exercising his agreed time with them. In reality, the deaths of these children were at the hands of an evil man who trespassed onto Olga’s property and executed them.

If you would like more information on the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility and the Family Court’s consideration of time spent with each parent, keep an eye out for our next blog.

If you require assistance with your parenting arrangements or would like a free fifteen minute appointment with a child custody lawyer in Melbourne, please contact Rowan Skinner & Associates Lawyers. We are LIV Accredited Family Lawyers in Melbourne.

[1] https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/olga-had-one-safe-place-her-yoga-class-then-her-abusive-husband-colonised-it-20200911-p55uwx.html

[1] https://au.news.yahoo.com/query-over-help-edwards-murders-173151130–spt.html