Staff Snapshot #3: Dr Fiona Kelly

Welcome to the third staff snapshot for 2015. Each month we will interview a La Trobe Law School academic about their research interests and career trajectories. Today’s post features Fiona Kelly, Senior Lecturer and Director of Research, who teaches, researches and writes about family law.

What are your research interests?

My research is primarily in the area of Family Law, with a particular focus on the law’s response to families created through assisted reproduction. Over the years, I have considered the legal treatment of lesbian families, families created by single women, and the rights of donor conceived children. The majority of my research is empirical, with a particular focus on small scale qualitative studies designed to give a voice to communities who rarely have access to the law. The objective of my research is often law reform.

What was your career pathway prior to joining the La Trobe Law School?

I completed my law degree at the University of Melbourne and was set to do articles at what was then Allens Arthur Robinson, where I had worked for a number of years. A month before my start date, I was offered a position at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) to work on a research project on Family Court and Children’s Court cases involving child abuse. I had never been particularly enthusiastic about a corporate law career, so I deferred articles to take the job at AIFS. It was the best decision I ever made. I discovered not only that I loved family law, but also research. After my stint at AIFS, I was a Judge’s Associate at the Family Court of Australia where I worked on an access dispute between a lesbian couple and their known sperm donor. The case opened my eyes to the failures of the law in this area and set me on my career trajectory.

When my position at the Family Court ended, I moved to Canada to commence a PhD at the University of British Columbia (UBC) on the legal treatment of lesbian parenting. My PhD research, which involved qualitative interviews with lesbian parents across Canada, was published as a book, Transforming Law’s Family: The Legal Recognition of Planned Lesbian Parenthood.

In 2007, I was hired as an Assistant Professor at UBC and worked there for seven years, continuing my research on non-normative families and teaching Family Law and Torts. My PhD research eventually influenced law reform in the province of British Columbia, leading to new parentage laws in 2012. On the basis of my research, B.C. became the first jurisdiction in the world to permit a child conceived via assisted reproduction to have three legal parents at birth.

What has been your most memorable experience teaching at La Trobe Law School?

My best teaching experiences are always in my Family Law class and usually involve students engaging with some of the tough social issues and how the law should address them. Whether it’s how the law should respond to transgender children, the relevance of family violence to parenting decisions, or the moral and legal challenges of commercial surrogacy, I always enjoy listening to students express their views and grapple with how to turn them into effective law reform.

How do you see your research into same-sex parenting contributing, if at all, to the current political discourse around marriage equality in Australia?

The issues of legal parentage and marriage are not directly linked. In fact, many people might be surprised to discover that a change to the marriage laws would have no impact whatsoever on same-sex parenting laws. However, it is clear that for some same-sex parents and their children, marriage rights are important and so reform in this area is likely to produce social and psychological benefits. Children raised by same-sex parents do better when they live in a city or country that is more socially progressive and accepting of homosexuality. As such, supporting the marriage rights of same-sex couples is one important thing governments can do to support children being raised by same-sex parents.

You recently received a general grant from the Victorian Law Foundation for developing a legal toolkit for parents of transgender children. What are some of the barriers that families of transgender children face in the Australian legal system?

A rapidly growing number of Australian children and adolescents are identifying as transgender. Referrals of children and adolescents to the Gender Dysphoria Service at the RCH in Melbourne have increased from 18 in 2012 to 109 in 2014, a five-fold increase in just two years. Medical treatment for transgender children is regulated by international consensus guidelines. Treatment occurs in two stages. Stage one comprises administration of puberty-suppressant hormones or “blockers”. Stage two treatment usually commences when the adolescent reaches 16 years of age and involves the administration of either testosterone or oestrogen. To access Stage two treatment, Family Court approval must be obtained.

Australia is the only country in the world that requires transgender children to get court approval for their medical treatment. The Family Court process is costly, emotionally draining, and can cause dangerous delays. Most parents feel overwhelmed by its financial and emotional implications. In fact, research demonstrates that the stress and anxiety associated with the Court process increases parental resistance to both diagnosis and treatment. This is extremely concerning given that health professionals, many of whom have appeared as expert witnesses in Family Court cases, agree that delaying treatment exacerbates existing psychological symptoms and increases social isolation.

Obtaining Family Court approval also puts direct strain on transgender youth. Dr Telfer, the Lead Pediatrician at the Gender Dysphoria Service at the Royal Children’s Hospital, has stated that the Family Court process is “one of the significant contributors to increased morbidity and mortality” amongst transgender adolescents in Australia. Reducing the stress and anxiety associated with the Family Court process through the provision of a plain language Toolkit could, quite literally, save lives.

Marc Trabsky