Lawyer who represented children killed by John Edwards subject of complaints in NSW, tribunal hears

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Debbie Morton, who denies any wrongdoing, was removed from Legal Aid NSW panel of lawyers assigned to represent children in the family court in March

The family court building in Sydney. The lawyer who represented children killed by John Edwards has been the subject of complaints in NSW a tribunal has heard.
The family court building in Sydney. The lawyer who represented children killed by John Edwards has been the subject of complaints in NSW a tribunal has heard. Photograph: Takatoshi Kurikawa/Alamy Stock Photo
The family court building in Sydney. The lawyer who represented children killed by John Edwards has been the subject of complaints in NSW a tribunal has heard. Photograph: Takatoshi Kurikawa/Alamy Stock Photo

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 22.28 EST

A lawyer accused of misleading the family court during an inquest into the deaths of two children at the hands of their father, has denied any wrongdoing or negligence on her part in relation to four complaints filed about her.

Debbie Morton has effectively been barred from representing children in family court proceedings in New South Wales, after Legal Aid NSW removed her in March this year from its panel of independent children’s lawyers that are assigned to represent children in family court proceedings.

Morton was appointed to represent Jack and Jennifer Edwards in family court proceedings stemming from a 2016-2017 custody dispute.

A NSW coronial inquest was established after the children’s father, John, gunned down his two children and then shot himself in 2018.

Legal Aid NSW made the decision to remove Morton from the panel on 23 March this year. It cannot reveal the specific reasons behind the decision but a spokesman told Guardian Australia when it removes a lawyer from a panel “it is because Legal Aid NSW is no longer satisfied that the practitioner reaches the requisite standard for membership”.

The manager of professional practices for Legal Aid NSW, Melissa Burgess, told a NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal hearing on Monday that four complaints had been lodged relating to Morton.

Legal Aid NSW is defending an appeal in relation to an application for further information under the state’s freedom of information program (Government Information Public Access, GIPA) regarding the complaints.

The organisation maintains there is an overriding public interest in not disclosing information about the complaints which relate to family law cases.

Separate to her involvement with the Edwards family, it has been confirmed that Shine Lawyers are independently investigating taking civil action against Morton regarding an allegation of “professional negligence”.

The case is unrelated to the Edwards inquest. The family cannot be named for legal reasons.

Morton was assigned to represent 15-year-old Jack Edwards and his 13-year-old sister Jennifer during family court proceedings after their parents John and Olga separated in 2016. Morton was a member of Legal Aid NSW’s independent children’s lawyer panel at the time.

On 5 July 2018, John tracked down the new address in the Sydney suburb of Pennant Hills where his children were living with their mother, and killed them before taking his own life. Olga died by suicide five months later.

The coronial inquest into the children’s deaths is yet to hand down its findings but in November heard claims that Morton misled the family court by not mentioning an apprehended violence order she knew police had sought in 2011 to protect another of Edwards’ daughters, during proceedings in which she recommended contact between the children and their father.

At the inquest, court-appointed psychologists testified that the Edwards children told them they did not feel Morton took their concerns of violence seriously.

Morton, during the inquest, denied claims she misled the family court.

Separately, in November 2019, the full bench of the family court allowed an appeal of a federal circuit court decision from two months earlier in relation to an order removing two children from a parent into another relative’s care.

Public court documents reveal Morton acted as the independent children’s lawyer.

The appeal judges found that as a result of the federal circuit court’s 13 September decision, the children were unnecessarily moved to another relative’s care.

The judgment of the appeal to that decision found their removal caused trauma to the children.

The judgment was critical of both the judge for implementing the order and Morton for applying for it on behalf of the children.

According to the judgment, police removed the children from their father’s home in the early hours of the morning of 14 September, hours after the late-night final hearing, in which Morton recommended the transfer to the other relatives.

Lisa Flynn, Shine Lawyers’ national practice manager, told Guardian Australia “what this family has been through is devastating”.

“Our client believes [this] could have been avoided had the independent childrens’ lawyer appointed by Legal Aid acted differently.

“Shine Lawyers is investigating a civil claim on behalf of these two children alleging professional negligence on the part of this lawyer.”

Morton is still listed as a practising lawyer on the Law Society of NSW’s website.

Melinda Di Condio, a lawyer representing Morton, told Guardian Australia that “Morton denies any wrongdoing or negligence on her part in the course of her practice”.

Di Condio said Morton could not comment specifically on allegations as she was bound by client legal privilege. She said Morton was also bound by an undertaking she provided precluding discussion of the Edwards family inquest.

The tribunal’s decision on the GIPA application will be handed down at a later date.