She sued the Federal and South Australian Governments, defended herself in a five-month court-case – and won!
In 1987 the South Australian government ceased funding the Christies Beach womens shelter, due, it said, to ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ of misappropriation of funds, sexual misconduct, intimidation, physical harassment, and unprofessional conduct.
Fifteen years later – June 21st 2002 – Supreme Court judge Justice Debelle said all these allegations were false, and the then womens shelter administrator Dawn Rowan, who largely represented herself, was awarded damages of half a million dollars. Taxpayers have paid millions, says Dawn, for the S.A. and Federal Governments to ‘defend the indefensible’. The saga isn’t finished yet. There’s an appeal pending – costs again courtesy of the Australian taxpayer!
I first met her via a phone call at an odd Easter hour six years ago.
‘Hi, my name’s Dawn Rowan. You don’t know me, but I’ve just heard you on the ABC. I’ve got to talk to you. Urgently!’
The radio program had been about the classical Christian discipline of Spiritual Direction – how we help one another to try to understand the ways of God.
In our first session she quickly tossed in her two main agendas. ‘I’m a therapist, working with the adult survivors of childhood ritual, satanic, emotional, sexual and physical abuse. I want to know where God was when those babies were born to be tortured.’
‘The second: I’m taking two governments and two TV networks to court. I’m up against the most powerful elites in our nation, and I need support somewhere!’
Two hundred counselling-hours later we’re still talking.
People like Dawn Rowan make interesting counsellees. I have clients who are psychiatrists, psychologists and, in my specialised work, many clergy and their spouses, and it’s intimidating to talk with someone who is analysing – albeit sometimes unconsciously – your counselling techniques. Dawn has herself been a counsellor since 1970 – in schools and the women’s liberation centre in Adelaide – before she managed the Christies Beach Womens Shelter. But I found her at all times to be emotionally genuine, scrupulously honest about her feelings and the events we discussed, able to cry (which happened frequently) and very fluent when she got angry about the abuse she felt she had received from various authority figures.
A dedicated feminist activist, Dawn, now 55, was probably the first person to identify the syndrome of ‘battered women’ back in 1981.
‘I identified a pattern of abusive strategies used by violent men and a pattern of responses by victims/survivors of this abuse and the common impacts on their lives. My 1981 analysis of the nature and extent of family violence and child abuse in our community is now accepted as commonplace knowledge. But back then I was described by those who were threatened by this new information as a ‘liar, exaggerator, and an empire-builder’. Even the ‘ideological watchdogs’ of the women’s movement attacked me and sabotaged my efforts to alert everyone about the realities of domestic violence through community education and training of professionals. We set up the Christies Beach Shelter on a profoundly different philosophy to that of the prevailing feminist position – to empower women and their children to access real choices.
‘I’ve learned that being twenty years ahead of your time is dangerous.’
Are you still a feminist?
‘I no longer define myself as a feminist. I’ve too often experienced in my counselling practice the results of women abusing others – or of being acquiescent in the abuse by others of children in their care. I’d rather help with a no-blame philosophy of human behaviour.’
Dawn’s case was heard in the South Australian Supreme Court over five months in 2001.
A qualified social worker (and high school music teacher) with no legal training, Dawn Rowan represented herself against four legal teams – including a QC, senior and junior barristers, briefing solicitors and other supporting legal staff. She ran the case with the assistance of her 20-year old niece, Felicity Lockwood, who also has had no legal training. Only in the final submissions stage did she get the help of a barrister – for one week.
On 21st of June 2002, after deliberating for nine months, South Australian Supreme Court judge Justice Debelle handed down a 300-page judgment. You can read it on the Australasian Legal Information Institute’s website: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/sa/SASC/2002/160.html .
In a landmark ruling he found that she had been completely vindicated after living for 15 years with vilification, humiliation and injustice.
Says Dawn angrily: ‘And these are the politicians we elect to high office in our sick system! Millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent defending the indefensible.’
‘This has been a 15-year legal campaign waged by the Federal Government (both Labor and Liberal) and the South Australian Government (both Labor and Liberal), to defend themselves against charges of misfeasance (abuse of public office), defamation, negligence and conspiracy.
‘We’d spent many exhausting years in the early 1980s trying to get adequate funding through the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP). We were so frustrated we even created ‘SAAP Sucks!’ badges. The levels of public funding were insulting. At the time the cost to accommodate one person per night in a hospital was $250, in a gaol $180, and in a women’s shelter $10 a night! Our shelter in Christies Beach ran a 24-hour, seven days a week service for approximately 300 women and their children a year with just five staff.
‘The saga really came to the boil in October 1986. Representatives of the South Australian women’s shelters unanimously called for the withdrawal of Dr. Cornwall’s Father of the Year award, which had been bestowed on him some months before. He was then the Minister for Health and Welfare in the Bannon Labor government.
‘This was duly reported in the Adelaide Advertiser the following morning.
‘Within three or four days Dr. Cornwall announced in parliament that he was establishing an ‘Independent’ Review (Rowland: always put ‘Independent’ in ‘quotes’!) of the management and administration South Australian shelters. But I believe he was really targeting the ‘bully girls’ as he called us, at Christies’ Beach. He saw me – probably with some justification – as the ‘ringleader’ in all this.
‘”Independent?” Dr Cornwall appointed all the members of the ‘independent review’ committee, including the chairperson Mrs. Judith Roberts, who continues to chair (or is a member of) numerous health welfare and education boards and committees, both in South Australia and nationally.
‘Our shelter at Christies Beach was singled out in the final report of the ‘independent’ review with ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ of misappropriation of funds, physical and verbal harassment and intimidation of shelter clients, professional negligence, sexual harassment of clients, and inappropriate and exploitative counselling practices.
‘On 11th August 1987 Dr Cornwall announced in the SA parliament, under parliamentary privilege, that he was defunding Christies Beach women’s shelter on the grounds of this list of ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ contained in the report Shelters in the Storm which was produced by the Roberts committee.
‘But a couple of months before, in June 1987, the minister and some committee members, obviously realising how damaging the allegations would be, actually sought formal legal advice from Mr. Brad Selway of the Crown Solicitors’ office regarding their liability in defamation should the report be released under parliamentary privilege.
‘In 1990 I filed proceedings against thirteen defendants – for defamation, negligence, and misfeasance (abuse of public office). The defendants were:
- The Commonwealth of Australia, the State of South Australia, Dr. Cornwall, Mr. Christopher Sumner (State Attorney-General)
- Ms Susan Ryan (Federal Minister for Community Services)
- Mrs Judith Roberts, Miss Judith Blake (a member of the Review Committee who was also chair of the Whyalla YWCA which ran a women’s shelter)
- Mrs Rosemary Wighton (Review Committee member who happened to be Deputy CEO of The Dept of Community Welfare, which administered shelter funds)
- Ms Colleen Johnson (Review Committee member, a senior financial manager in Dr Cornwall’s Health Department)
- Ms Robyn King (Review Committee member who represented The Commonwealth)
- Ms Harrison Anderson (‘independent’ paid consultant to the committee)
- The Australian Broadcasting Corporation
- Network Ten.
‘In 1998 the charge of conspiracy was added following further examination of the relevant documents. Two more defendants were added: Ms Susan Varden (then CEO of the Department of Community Welfare, and currently CEO of Centrelink) and Mr. Peter Bicknell (then manager of the unit within the DCW which administered shelter funds).’
In a landmark legal judgment Justice Debelle found that:
- All the unsubstantiated allegations were false. ‘The allegations’, he said, ‘ were a shocking defamation’.
- Dr Cornwall, Mrs Judith Roberts, Mrs Rosemary Wighton and Ms Harrison Anderson were guilty of malice
- The Roberts committee and the consultant Harrison Anderson were guilty of defamation for the contents of the report.
- Mrs Roberts, the ABC and Channel Ten were guilty of defamation in regard to current affairs TV programs broadcast on 12 August 1987.
- Dr Cornwall was guilty of misfeasance
Justice Debelle said, in para 687: ‘These were serious libels. They charged the plaintiff and others at the Christies Beach shelter with conduct quite inappropriate in any field of employment, but the more so in a women’s shelter. The allegation of misappropriation of funds was, in effect, an accusation of theft. The allegations of sexual misconduct, intimidation, physical harassment, and unprofessional conduct, went to the very essence of the plaintiff’s employment as Administrator of a women’s shelter. When these allegations are viewed as a whole, it is difficult to think of a more serious defamation, particularly of a woman employed in a women’s shelter.’
At this point in our interview we had to pause while Dawn tried to control her emotions. My wife Jan was with us, and we found ourselves sitting either side of Dawn embracing her while she sobbed.
In a while she resumed her story.
THE MYSTERIOUS MATTER OF THE MISSING DOCUMENTS
‘In my research I found that a whole cohort of documents related to this matter were missing. Government and other departments that we expect to keep good records “mislaid” key documents. Mysterious eh? That motivated me to add the conspiracy charges. Documents tend not to go missing all by themselves!
‘In paragraphs 87, 94 and 97of his finding the judge said:
“One curious feature of this litigation is the fact that files kept by the relevant departments, have, to a large extent, been lost or destroyed. Some files were destroyed or lost after this action had commenced. There were four State Government departments and one Commonwealth Government department involved in this matter. The four State departments were the DCW, the Crown Solicitors’ Office, the Police Department and Corporate Affairs Commission. The Commonwealth Department was the Department of Community Services… It is possible to understand that files from one department might have been inadvertently lost or destroyed. Coincidence cannot explain why files from five departments cannot be located…’
“It is not possible to identify a particular issue where the absence of document has had a material consequence. No conclusions can be drawn because of the absence of documents. Nevertheless, a sense of disquiet remains.”
Dawn added: ‘It’s obviously very difficult in law to prove conspiracy, but it was worth a try!’
The outcome? Justice Debelle awarded damages of $340,000, which -with interest – totalled $585,000.
Dawn, how to you feel about the findings?
‘First, they have made legal history in some respects. People can now more freely challenge the notion of parliamentary privilege. Politicians will have to be more careful about abusing their power and privilege. They are liable to be found guilty and punished for the ‘tort of misfeasance’ – abuse of public office.
‘I’m disappointed in the level of damages awarded.
‘But I want to pay tribute to Justice Debelle. He had a complete knowledge and understanding of the facts. His judgment was strong.’
How much did it all cost you Dawn?
‘Well, for a start, I have lived in terror. These “allegations” – every one in every detail – were 180 degrees opposite to reality. When the public statement about defunding was made, I felt that if I had said anything in public I would be found dead in the gutter. I totally collapsed. I’d only been given five minutes’ notice – at 4.55 pm on August 11th 1987 – before the announcement (made under parliamentary privilege) was headlines in TV news bulletins at 5 pm, 6 pm and 7 pm. I managed to get myself to a friend’s house, then was immobilized for three weeks. My personal and professional reputation was destroyed. My worldview was shattered, and my self-confidence disappeared. I have lived ever since – for 24 hours every day – with the terrible feeling that people see me as some sort of criminal. Once publicly accused you are never fully cleared regardless of legal outcomes. I still get distressed – as you’ve noticed many times – when I talk about it. And have you noticed that the media has kept an ominous silence about it all?
‘Some of my documents relating to the case vanished – from a friend’s home in Victoria, where I had been storing them for security.
‘Financially, I’ve spent about three quarters of a million dollars in costs – that includes hundreds of weekends studying and preparing for this case. In terms of lost earnings: add another $1 million. Emotionally, I’m not really up to working still. And did you know self-represented litigants get not one cent’s payment for their own preparation and court time – even if they’re vindicated as I was? (That was a high court decision to discourage non-legally-trained people running their own cases.) Some out-of-pocket expenses – photocopying, travel, etc. can be reimbursed. And note that damages awards pay only 4% simple interest. If interest were calculated at market rates, the damages would have been three times as high, ie. about $1 million
‘Within five weeks I fled to Victoria to find some means of surviving this total personal destruction. Since then I’ve had roughly an hour a week of therapy for 15 years.’
And how much has this 15-year battle cost taxpayers?
‘Well,’ she said, ‘do your own calculations. The outlay of taxpayers’ money is not just up the wall but over the roof! Factor in these costs:
- the Roberts Committee Review (which met for eight months)
- a three-month CIB investigation into the shelter in 1987 – no action taken
- a three-month Corporate Affairs investigation in 1987
- a Corporate Affairs trial against Dawn Rowan and two other shelter workers in 1988 for trivial breaches of the complex new Incorporations Act of less significance under the law than failing to register your dog. No charges were recorded.
- a South Australian parliamentary Upper House Select Committee which investigated the circumstances surrounding the defunding of the Christies Beach Womens Shelter (12 months in 1988-9) which criticised in the strongest possible terms the inclusion in the Roberts Review report of the unsubstantiated allegations
- SA Ombudsman’s Investigation (1989) – found that the DCW’s actions were unreasonable and unjust
- a Strike-out application taken out against Dawn Rowan by the defendants (date?) which was dismissed
- Stay of Proceedings taken out against Dawn Rowan by the defendants 1996 (which, again, was lost)
- Five-month trial in the SA Supreme Court 2001 – they lost
- Current appeals by all defendants against Justice Debelle’s judgment (probably another 18 months)
- Defendants’ application to stay the payment of damages to Dawn Rowan ordered by Justice Debelle – dismissed.’
Was the court-case an experience of unremitting seriousness?
‘Mostly yes, but Justice Debelle had a sophisticated and wry sense of humour. The funniest moment for me was when the barrister for the Commonwealth Government tried to deflect responsibility for this whole debacle to the South Australian Government, by insisting that the Roberts Committee had the characteristics of a State committee, not a Commonwealth SAAP/State committee. Summarising his case he said “If the committee looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s a duck!” When I responded to this the next day I added “But, your honour, Mr Stanley did not ask ‘But what does it smell like?’ Upon which there was enthusiastic laughter (from most quarters!).’
Where to from here with the case?
‘The 13 defendants are appealing all the findings of the judgment. When? Who knows. Probably 12-18 months’ time.’
Finally, what do you think of our political and legal systems?
‘Anyone who doesn’t believe in conspiracies in high places is being simply irresponsible. Our Westminster system of parliamentary privilege can be grossly abused. Of course I’m not the only one to have experienced that! And our legal system, I believe, is not primarily a system of justice, but of order…’
And where is God?
‘I’m a “deconverted” Christian. I’d like to think that a beneficent God is up there somewhere, but I can’t figure out why people are allowed to get away with such terrible human injustices and wickedness. I have trouble with institutional Christianity but the Jesus I’ve studied was a rebel and fought for social justice – so I would have really felt at home with him.’
Dawn Rowan is director of New Beginnings, a counselling and psychotherapy practice in Melbourne for men, women and children who have experienced severe abuse.
UPDATE (May 4, 2006)
Dawn: ‘The South Australian Supreme Court has ordered me to pay the Commonwealth’s costs, heavily discounted to $380,000, effective as from last Thursday.
‘The other two parties – the ABC and Network Ten – are also submitting claims for their costs in this action.
‘And the State of South Australia is wanting me to pay their costs for the bias case submission against these three judges; the bias claim was dismissed.’
Dawn, what’s the ‘bias claim’ all about?
‘I made a submission to the Supreme Court claiming a “perception of bias” on the part of at least two of the three judges, which was not disclosed at any time in the trial: for example, one of the three judges had been in association with Judith Roberts on at least ten committees of various kinds, including the Flinders University Council.’
‘Let the Minister Beware”: Personal Liability of Politicians (Rowan v Cornwall).
‘… The sort of conduct that may be dismissed as little more than “robust politics” may now carry a very special and damaging sanction’… More:
Reporting on the bankruptcy hearing of 24th August 2007, Channel 7’s Today Tonight program said in part:
‘By reverting to ancient law – where a dispute is settled by an apology and a pledge to make good the original damage – Dawn has now circumvented the entire legal process. And because Dawn is indisputably in the right – in fact she is the wronged party – there is no debt to settle. Honour is restored with an apology to the court.’
See http://dawnrowansaga.blogspot.com/ for transcripts of two Channel 7