People are sharing dodgy and harmful legal advice in Facebook groups aimed at men going through separations, including encouraging users to illegally surveil their partners.
There are several active Facebook groups filled with hundreds of men who are aggrieved at Australia’s Family Court system, and who regularly ask for advice on navigating legal proceedings.
In posts found by BuzzFeed News, men are given amateur advice by other members to make video or audio recordings of their partners without their knowledge, to illegally record court proceedings, and to refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of Australian law.
Lawyers specialising in family law say users could risk criminal charges if they follow the advice offered by other members.
The groups are usually private and centred on common themes such as opposition to Australia’s family law system, domestic violence against men, and father’s rights. They typically contain news stories about the Family Court and separated fathers, as well as misogynistic memes, posts complaining about ex-partners, and members seeking support and advice.
Forte Family Lawyers partner and the Law Council of Australia’s Family Law Section’s immediate past chair Wendy Kayler-Thomson said the amateur legal advice offered in the groups should be avoided.
"The internet often contains outdated or misleading information about how the courts deal with family law cases, or what the law is on particular issues," Kayler-Thomson told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
Kayler-Thomson reviewed five examples of posts in Facebook groups supplied by BuzzFeed News and found the advice given either ill-advised or promoted illegal activity.
Posters regularly suggest men surveil their ex-partners without their knowledge to obtain evidence of their behaviour to use in court, or to contest accusations of family violence, even going so far as to recommend "secret" recording equipment to purchase.
Kayler-Thomson said in most circumstances this is illegal and that the recorded material can not be used in court.
"Even if the court uses their discretion to admit the recording into evidence," Kayler-Thomson said. “That person still might be charged with a criminal offence.”
Even in Victoria, Queensland and Northern Territory, where it’s legal to record a conversation with another person without their consent, Women’s Services Network national director Karen Bentley said it’s still harmful behaviour.
"It’s not respectful, and it could be considered controlling and coercive," said Bentley. "Not a healthy behaviour."
Group members also advised recording every interaction, including court proceedings. This is illegal and can carry a fine of up to $8,000.
One post by a Facebook page with more than 19,000 followers asked a group’s members whether it was “wrong” to illegally abduct their children to show their partner what it would feel like. Commenters unanimously agreed that it was wrong, but one member equated it to custody decisions made by the courts.
"Taking such an extreme and unilateral action is likely to lead to a court ordering the Australian Federal Police to recover the child, and such actions are very likely to damage the case of the withholding parent," said Kayler-Thomson.
Some people raised arguments used by the sovereign citizen movement, a group who say laws do not apply to them due to bizarre interpretations of the Australian Constitution that dispute the authority of the Family Court.
“Raising such claims rather than, for instance, focusing on what care arrangements might be in a child’s best interests are likely to damage that person’s case,” Kayler-Thomson said.
Another common suggestion in the groups is for men to forgo hiring a lawyer and represent themselves in court.
"Family law disputes are highly emotional, and it can be difficult to objectively and correctly assess the strength of your position," Kayler-Thomson said. “It can also be difficult to understand how to best present your evidence and follow the rules of the court.”
In some family law cases, self-representation is not an option. Where there are accusations or convictions of family violence, the courts can refuse or stop a self-representing alleged abuser from cross-examining a witness.
Several posts in the groups celebrated last month’s announcement of an Australian government inquiry into the family law system, which is being co-chaired by far right senator Pauline Hanson and conservative backbencher Kevin Andrews.
The inquiry has been extensively criticised by women’s and anti-domestic violence groups, who say it is unnecessary and delays sorely needed changes to keep children safe. In a joint statement released on Friday, more than 100 groups working in the family violence sector wrote: "The decision to further delay implementing these urgently needed changes is absolutely unconscionable. Women’s and children’s lives are on the line."
Family law solicitor Adam Jones said Facebook advertisements for his business have been shared in the groups, and that some of his clients had previously asked for and received advice from other members. He said the groups encouraged a "fight mentality" that doesn't assist in Family Court matters, particularly when accusations of family violence are involved.
"When you’re in a high conflict situation, you become anxious, and you become obsessed, and it becomes a bit of an echo chamber," he said. "Legal aid isn’t available unless you’re right down the bottom of the ladder. Facebook lawyers are, for many dads, the ‘go-to’ place."
BuzzFeed News approached a number of administrators for comment, but did not hear back by publication.