Allegations of family violence against John Edwards before he killed his children were characterised as a “dad being a bit overbearing” by the person tasked to represent the children’s best interests in the family court, an inquest has heard.
On Thursday the independent children’s lawyer Debbie Morton repeatedly denied misleading a family court when advocating for Edwards to see the children, who had told several people he was violent.
Teenagers Jack and Jennifer Edwards were killed by their estranged father in Sydney’s West Pennant Hills in July 2018 after the armed 67-year-old followed his daughter home from school.
The inquest into the deaths of the children and the killer’s later suicide has examined how a family court ordered the teenagers see their father on an interim basis despite his long documented history of domestic violence.
The court, sitting after weeks of hearings in September, heard on Thursday how Morton advocated for Edwards to drive Jack to school daily in mid-2017.
When addressing allegations of family violence, the woman duty-bound to represent the children’s best interests told the family court: “There’s a concern about the dad being a bit overbearing.”
On Thursday, Morton denied that statement was misleading or “grossly inaccurate”, given her knowledge at the time that the children had disclosed violence to experts; that those experts had raised concerns; that the children’s mother had also made detailed allegations; and that Morton had read how an adult child of Edwards was afraid of her estranged father due to her own history of abuse at his hands.
“All the evidence pointed to the exact opposite – that he was a significant risk to these children,” counsel assisting Kate Richardson SC said.
“No,” Morton replied.
The lawyer, who twice denied lying in her evidence to the coroners court, said she was aware of her obligations at the time.
She denied that the tenor of her submission in June 2017 was that Edwards was overbearing, his ex-wife Olga was controlling and that Jack should see his father.
But she agreed she never outlined to the court how placing a child in the proximity of an alleged perpetrator was consistent with the family violence best practice principles referenced in the guidelines for independent children’s lawyers.
Morton was also adamant a family consultant had agreed with her that the father and son being together sometimes was a “good option”.
During the intense questioning, Morton hit back at Richardson, saying she didn’t think the barrister knew how the family court worked.
“You seem to think the independent children’s lawyer has an enormous amount of power,” she said.
Richardson replied that her questions were based on the ICL’s duties as outlined by the court itself.
The inquest has heard that Olga, who took her life after her children’s murders, detailed in 2017 how Edwards had chased Jack through Paris on a family holiday – throwing the boy up against a wall so violently that passersby intervened.
Morton characterised the incident to the family court as “Jack ran away, John was chasing after him and different things like that”.
“You downplayed the Paris incident to His Honour, do you agree?” Richardson asked.
“I don’t think so,” Morton replied.
Asked if it was again “consistent with a pattern of your conduct” of not taking allegations of violence seriously, Morton replied: “No.”
David Brown, who was Olga’s boss and representative in the family court, previously told the inquest his “very clear impression” was that Morton was going to “drive the children into John’s hands” by downplaying the assault allegations and maintaining a perceived right of Edwards to see his children.
NSW coroner Teresa O’Sullivan is expected to make her findings at a later date.
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. The national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732.