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Paul Doolan is a partner at Barkus Doolan Family Lawyers and Chair of the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia. Doolan was ranked as a Market Leader in the area of family law across Australia from 2018-2021. Doolan talks about a heartbreaking case that highlights the power of the law.

About seven years ago, a woman came to see me and told me her husband had been charged with a significant criminal offence against her child from a previous marriage. She had also just had a baby with this man, so she was in a rather desperate situation. It was a heartbreaking story. I gave her legal advice about family law and child protection for the infant and didn’t charge her for it. 

About a year later, she came back to see me after being served with family court papers from her former husband. He had been charged and convicted of very serious offences and was serving a double-digit sentence in jail. 

Despite being in jail, he then pursued a financial claim against her in family law and sought orders about the child they shared – whom he’d never met. He wanted time with his child, and he wanted her to sell her house and get a property settlement despite only being together for a fairly short period. I agreed to act pro bono for her. 

Michael Kearney SC also agreed to act pro bono and did a great job preparing the case at trial. Dr Jacoba Brasch QC, who’s now the president of the Law Council of Australia, also offered to appear pro bono if Michael was unavailable. 

The matter went through the court system for years. My client’s former husband eventually withdrew his parenting claim but pursued her in regard to reaching a property settlement. 

In the end, the other side ultimately abandoned their case before trial and my client got to keep her very small apartment and move on with her life. 

She was beyond happy as she had been filled with dread at the idea of going through the court process with this man again, after being cross-examined at his criminal trial. My client described the settlement as one of the best days of her life. 

She is now studying law; and I think that’s in part because of this case. The circumstances she’d been through in the criminal courts and the family courts showed her how important law is to society. 

In family law you have to be empathetic, not sympathetic. You have to remind yourself it’s not your money and it’s not your children. 

The worst family lawyers are those who can’t give impartial advice because they become so enmeshed in their client’s life and concerns that they sometimes mistake moral guidance for giving blunt legal advice, which we’re engaged to give.

This case reminded me of the worth lawyers bring and the potential they have to change people’s lives. 

I think there’s a lot of unfair and malicious denigration of lawyers in the media at the moment, but this case affirms for me the importance that lawyers bring to clients and to society in general. 

At the end of the matter, my client said to me that we’d changed her life. I think this was an important case because it did change me; but, more importantly, it changed my client’s life.