The Family Court Murders

Recommendation: If we’re being honest with ourselves, this could have been a podcast.

Where to read: Beach holiday crime reading

Read with: Paranoia

In brief: There is an overly dramatic 7News report by the same journalists which will save you valuable reading time. If this delved a little deeper than the ‘true crime’ shock fest it might be different but this is far more recount than analysis.

The Family Court murders are a pretty disturbing episode in Australian history and a deeply awful demonstration of the damage one radicalised, abusive man can do, not only to his own family but also to the community at large. It was also an episode I had not previously been familiar with, which is perhaps peculiar for a lawyer with a history degree. That said, this book, and the coverage around the case more broadly, seem to focus only on the true crime aspects rather than anything psychological or systemic.

The narrative runs something like this – Leonard Warwick was a controlling, narcissistic sociopath who met a young woman called Andrea Blanchard, decided she was vulnerable and biddable enough to marry and then control, had a child with her and then proceeded to beat and abuse her. Her brother and her friends supported her in leaving him and she eventually did, taking her daughter with her. He responded by allegedly murdering her brother, Stephen Blanchard, shooting him in the head in his own house while he was sleeping, then dumping his body in the Hawkesbury.

Their divorce went through the Family Court and he did not get the orders he wanted so he shot David Opas, the judge who was case managing the matter, at the front gate of his house. When the case was reassigned to another judge, Richard Gee, on the Court, he decided to blow Gee’s house up, injuring the judge and his children but mercifully not killing anyone. A third judge, Ray Watson, was appointed and took over the case so Warwick rigged a bomb to his front door, killing the judge’s wife, who had made a habit of opening the door first every morning in case of precisely such an attempt. A bomb was also left in the car of Andrea Blanchard’s solicitor.

Andrea Blanchard decided to get out of town entirely, assisted by her sister and some friends from her sister’s Jehovah’s Witness church. Warwick got wind of that and began calling various prominent Witnesses searching for information and making various threats, trying to locate them. This campaign culminated in Warwick blowing up the local church, killing the minister and injuring 13 others. Following the bombing, Andrea, presumably terrified by the continuing threat to not only her own life but that of her family, friends and total strangers with nothing but a vague connection to the matter, gave up custody of her daughter. **Mysteriously**, the bombings stopped after that.

There are bits in here about the Family Court and no-fault divorce as part of the problem which I don’t love – it’s not exactly MRA-friendly but the criticisms of the Family Court reforms (informal settings, breaking down the barriers between judges and people etc.) could have been more cautiously framed. I do have a certain level of sympathy for the idea that getting rid of robes and the ceremony of the courtroom makes it easier to see the law as a matter of personal decision-making rather than a larger system. There is also some entirely just commentary about the lack of security and funding for the Courts more generally. This continues to be a serious problem and needs to be addressed.

The other theme, which goes largely unexamined in a broader sense, is how difficult it is to deal with people who refuse to cooperate with others and within the legal system. This is, in part, a story of endless Court appearances to get orders to deal with a refusal to abide by the previous set of orders with no actual consequences attaching to that conduct. Had there been a better way of dealing with Warwick’s persistent refusals to return his daughter, and had Andrea not been forced to continue dealing with him, even in the face of abuse, the outcome might have been different.

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