In 16 years as chief justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson had only two delegations of people asking for special treatment, and both were from the Exclusive Brethren.
In a further indication of how the Brethren seek to change institutional arrangements to fit their religious views, Mr Nicholson has told The Age the group lobbied him to treat their Family Court disputes differently.
The sect fights legal battles in the courts because of its habit of excluding people perceived to have offended against the church or its elders.
Those excluded, or “withdrawn from”, are prevented from seeing their children, spouses and other family members, in case they contaminate them with their “worldly” views. Some families remain split for decades.
“The Brethren came to us (twice) in my 16 years €¦ it was the only delegation of this sort,” Mr Nicholson said. “We had two perfectly cordial discussions, and one of the things it was impossible to overcome was their strong view that €¦ if someone leaves the Brethren, they have no right to further contact with their partner or children €¦ they were, in effect, seeking a difference of approach, which I didn’t give them any joy on.”
Mr Nicholson told the group he could do nothing for them “because the law doesn’t allow it”. And he said the Brethren’s ban on television, radios, novels, newspapers, mobile phones and higher education had also caused problems. “Where contact did take place, they were seeking further restrictions on what the parent could do,” he said. The cases were fought “with great vigour” by both parties, and the Brethren members were always well funded and supported. “There were complaints on occasion that members of the Brethren sat in court and their presence intimidated people,” Mr Nicholson said.
“There were cases where orders of costs were made against the continuing Brethren partner, and they said there were no funds, but there seemed to be funds to continue the litigation.”
Ousted former Brethren have told The Age that donations were made at the daily Brethren meetings into a “fighting fund” that was reserved for legal cases, including in the Family Court.
“Any family law case that is fought with vigour is going to cost quite big money,” Mr Nicholson said.
Senator Andrew Murray, who was responsible for the Democrats’ negotiations with the Government over the 1996 Workplace Relations Act, has also given an insight into how the Brethren used special pleading to maintain their ability to ban unions from their workplaces.
“Peter Reith rang me late in the final stages of our negotiated agreement to say he was being heavily lobbied by them, and wanted to be rid of the lobbyists,” Senator Murray said.
“He saw it as a minor nuisance, saw no reason not to continue past practice for this small religious group if it meant so much to them, and asked whether I and the Democrats would object to their previous status being continued. I replied no.”
The Exclusive Brethren has between 33 and 38 schools throughout Australia, including 10 in metropolitan and regional Victoria and 13 in NSW, according to unpublished Education Department data. It is sometimes hard to confirm schools as Exclusive Brethren, because they do not all identify themselves.
The Victorian schools will get $1.2 million in federal recurrent funding this year, rising to $1.3 million in 2007 and $1.4 million in 2008. A spokesman for federal Education Minister Julie Bishop said the Brethren schools had met all their audit requirements. Brethren schools typically do not use computers, but this does not breach school registration requirements.