This is the story of a 20 year battle that has left an Adelaide woman facing homelessness at the hands of the State and Federal governments despite being completely innocent of any wrong doing.
In the 1980's Dawn Rowan and her colleagues were pioneers in the controversial and quite risky area of domestic violence. Independently they ran specialised women's shelters aimed at providing safe houses, counselling and support for women and children fleeing violence at home. It was a silent crime which affected many.
It was highly controversial work and the state and federal governments which funded the shelters resented their independence and wanted to turn the facilities into general refuges for all-comers.
Dawn was an outspoken advocate for the cause and fell foul of the Minister of Community Welfare the irascible Dr John Cornwall. Having already threatened to withdraw funding Cornwall initiated a review of the shelters particularly targeting Dawn and her Christies Beach shelter. In August 1987 he used the protection of parliament to table the review "Shelters in the Storm" and make public a series of extremely damaging though baseless allegations about Dawn and her shelter. These included allegations of misappropriation of funds, professional negligence, sexual and physical harassment of clients and inappropriate counselling.
Despite a police investigation and enquiries by the Corporate Affairs Commission, the Ombudsman, and a Senate committee all finding no evidence of wrong doing, the government refused to apologise or make good the wrongs.
Dawn Rowan's only option to reinstate her reputation was through court action. It was to be a 15 year battle during which all five government departments involved lost large portions of their files. In 2002 Justice Debelle found in Dawn's favour awarding her around $500,000 plus costs.
However the State and Federal governments appealed to the full bench and a legal technicality meant Dawn had to pay the federal government costs for the entire case. It would run into millions of dollars. Dawn, despite having been the wronged party, would be made homeless and bankrupt.
On the 28th May 2007 the Commonwealth government will sue for bankruptcy and take possession of Dawn's remaining asset, her home.
UPDATE: 24th August 2007
After an adjournment the matter came before the Federal Magistrates Court for a sequestration order for bankruptcy to be made on Friday the 24th August. This was 'D' day for Dawn Rowan.
After rejecting any argument for further adjournment the Registrar proclaimed that the Order would be made.
However something bizarre happened. Dawn rose to her feet and apologised to the court, said she had approached the matter in the entirely the wrong way and she wished to settle the matter privately and make any party who'd be damaged 'whole again'.
Every time Dawn was addressed she recited two carefully worded phrases. The Registrar was obviously confused and adjourned the matter offering Dawn a chance to make written submissions before she made her Order for bankruptcy. It was a victory of sorts.
Outside the court Dawn's 'advisers' said they had told her to revert to 'scriptual law' which means to settled a debt she must apologise and deal with it privately. Apparently by disengaging in the legal process Dawn had disenfranchised her creditors and was relieved of her debt. Game over!
We'll not exactly. Unfortunately those who believe "scriptal law" will over ride common or statute law had better return to the drawing board. In the end this merely delayed the proceedings and the Federal Court found in favour of the Federal Government.
UPDATE 19th May 2008
However since the change of government there has been a development. Just last week (May 12th 2008) the Federal Minister for Community Services, Housing and Indiginous Affairs Jenny Macklin wrote to the Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner asking him to exercise his discretion to waive Dawn's debt.
While there is no certainty we will keep you posted on any further developments.