Hannah Robert at the 2015 Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society Conference

La Trobe Law School Lecturer, Hannah Robert will give a paper at the Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society Conference 2015 this week, which is hosted at the University of Adelaide Law School. Hannah Robert will present a paper titled ‘A Tale of Two Fatherhoods: the Abolition of Illegitimacy and Unification of Legal Fatherhood in Australia’.


This paper considers one of the key reforms to legal parentage in late twentieth century Australia – the abolition of illegitimacy, and examines the impact of this reform on legal fatherhood.  In the 1970s, as each of the states and territories legislated to remove the legal distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children, they also erased the distinctions between legal fathers (ie men married to a nuptial child’s mother) and ‘natural’ fathers, who could be pursued for maintenance, but had no legal status as fathers. With the loss of marriage as the defining tether for legal fatherhood, lawmakers have since grasped around for an alternative ‘way of grounding men’s relationships with their children’ – often turning to genetic paternity testing.[1]

While there is a growing socio-legal literature on the fragmentation of legal parenthood (and fatherhood in particular) in the face of significant social, legal and technological change,[2]  this paper suggests that abolition of illegitimacy instead represented a moment of unification and universalisation for legal fatherhood – an attempt to extend the state of having a legal father to all children, irrespective of their lived family context. This paper examines the features of legal fatherhood before and after abolition of illegitimacy, and offers an analysis of the effects of this key reform for contemporary conceptions of legal fatherhood.

[1] Sally Sheldon, ‘From ‘absent objects of blame’ to ‘fathers who want to take responsibility’: reforming birth registration law’ (2009 ) 31 Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 373, 381. See also: Nancy E Dowd, ‘Parentage at Birth: Birthfathers and Social Fatherhood’ (2005-6) 14 William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 909.

[2] Carol Smart and Bren Neale, Family Fragments? (Polity Press, 1999). Richard Collier and Sally Sheldon, Fragmenting Fatherhood:  A Socio-Legal Study (Hart, 2008), 235 and throughout; Sally Sheldon, ‘Fragmenting Fatherhood: the regulation of reproductive technologies.’ (2005) 68(4) (July 2005) Modern Law Review 52; Alison Diduck, ”If only we can find the appropriate terms to use the issue will be solved’:  Law, Identity and Parenthood’ (2007) 19(4) Child and Family Law Quarterly 45; Alleardo Zanghellini, ‘Who is entitled to Parental Responsibility?  Biology, Caregiving, Intention and the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth):  A Jurisprudential Feminist Analysis’ (2009) 35 Monash University Law Review 147; Deborah Dempsey, ‘Donor, Father or Parent? Conceiving Paternity in the Australian Family Court’ (2004) 18 International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 76.


Hannah Robert joined La Trobe Law School as a Lecturer in 2010. Prior to joining La Trobe, Hannah taught in the History Department at the University of Melbourne, the Law School at the University of Newcastle, and worked as a solicitor in two commercial firms in Sydney, practicing primarily in commercial litigation and dispute resolution (including contract disputes, insolvency, trade practices, tax and a small number of intellectual property and family provision act matters).

Her Masters thesis was in legal history and concerned the notions of property and indigenous rights in land used by colonizers in Victoria and South Australia in the early 19th century. She is currently completing a doctoral thesis at Melbourne Law School on legal parentage, supervised by Professor Helen Rhoades, and Professor Jenny Morgan.

Hannah is involved in an interdisciplinary project with Dr Fiona Kelly and Dr Jennifer Power, funded by the Transforming Human Society Research Focus Area at La Trobe University, which involves a socio-legal study of the evolving concept of legal parentage in Australian family law and its connections with children’s best interests.

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