By Carrie Gan
If you follow celebrity news, you’ll have heard about Amber Heard’s separation from Johnny Depp. If not, here’s a summary: Heard “filed for divorce” alleging Depp was physically violent towards her. She alleges Depp threw a magnum-sized bottle of champagne at the wall and a wine glass at her, grabbed her by the hair and pushed her to the floor. Depp denies these allegations. Depp’s former fiancée, Vanessa Paradis, has come out in his defence, saying Depp is “a sensitive, loving and loved person… these recent allegations being made are outrageous… he has never been physically abusive with me…” Heard has received significant backlash following the allegations, being called “manipulative” and a “gold-digger”. It has also been revealed that Heard was once reportedly arrested for domestic violence against her former partner.
As a family law lawyer, reading these stories make me wonder – how would the allegations be treated in the Australian legal system?
Is domestic violence relevant in parenting or property matters?
One factor a Court must consider when determining living arrangements for a child is whether the child is at risk of harm because of child abuse or family violence. So, yes, domestic violence is certainly relevant in parenting matters. If the Court finds there is an unacceptable risk of harm to the child, it may order that the child spends no, or limited, time with the abusive/violent parent.
In property matters, the answer is not so simple. Currently, the law says violence is relevant if it made one party’s contributions during the relationship more “arduous”. In Heard’s case, if Depp’s alleged violence made it more difficult for her to, for example, work as an actress and earn an income or undertake household chores, then she may receive a greater share of the property pool than she otherwise would have.
Would Paradis’s views about Depp be relevant in determining whether Depp was violent to Heard?
Probably not. Just because Depp was never violent towards Paradis, does not mean that he wasn’t violent to Heard. Depp’s relationship with Paradis was years earlier, and his relationships with each woman might be entirely different. Depp might be a very different person now. A good “character reference” has little bearing on whether a person was violent to another person in a particular circumstance.
By the same token, just because Heard may have been violent towards a former partner, does not mean she is making up these allegations about Depp.
Accusing the alleged victim
It’s saddening to hear accusations being made by people who may have no knowledge of Heard’s private relationship with Depp. Heard’s allegations may be true or false. At this stage, no one knows except the parties involved. It is up to the Court to determine whether those allegations are true.
Recent reports say Heard has withdrawn her claim for spousal maintenance from Depp because she felt her claim was being used against her to divert from her allegations against Depp. In Australia, to be successful in a spousal maintenance claim, the applicant must demonstrate that he/she has a need for maintenance and that the other party has the capacity to pay. If Heard’s claim for spousal maintenance had grounds, it is frightening that she felt she had to drop that claim because of criticism over her allegations against Depp.
This backlash makes wonder – how does someone muster the courage to come forward about domestic violence if this is the kind of reaction that follows?
Family lawyers play an important role in assisting victims of domestic violence. It is incumbent on us to listen seriously to our client’s allegations, to advise them about appropriate measures to protect them from further violence, and to help them tell their story so that the Court (and the perpetrator) understand the importance of this and how it impacts on any negotiations or outcomes.