Stephen Page is one of Australia's leading surrogacy and divorce lawyers. He has written and spoken extensively about family law, domestic violence and surrogacy. Stephen is the author of the Australian Divorce Blog, the Australian Gay and Lesbian Law Blog and the Australian Surrogacy and Adoption Blog. We strongly encourage our readers to access these blogs to find out more about Stephen and these respective topics.
1. Who am I?
I am a 53 year old white Protestant male who has now been an admitted solicitor for over 30 years and an Accredited Family Law Specialist for over 20 years. I am the father of two adult sons of whom I am very proud.
And I have a husband. Mitchell and I married in Las Vegas in 2015. Our marriage is not yet recognised here.
2. Why I chose law
I was fairly lazy at high school and disorganised. Going to university required me to be organised. I wasn’t that good at maths but I was pretty good at English. Both my parents were or had been teachers. I didn’t want to be a teacher.
I didn’t have anyone in my family who was a lawyer. My mother was the first member of her family who went to university. My father was the first of his family to go to university. The only lawyer I knew was the family solicitor who was not much of a guide to how to become a lawyer.
As I was approaching the end of my high school, and I looked at my career options, I thought: “Why not?” I decided to do law.
3. Why I didn’t go to UQ
I lived in St Lucia and UQ was a walk away from home. Those reasons were:
a) The rational reason. My father, Les Page, then held a senior job in administration at UQ. He subsequently became the academic registrar. Thousands, probably tens of thousands of academic results were signed by him. Given what I had heard at the dinner table about how some academic staff reacted to what they called the Kremlin, I figured that if I went to UQ, I would be bullied, because of my association with dad. He was disappointed that I didn’t choose UQ. Subsequently, my sister did a BA at UQ and was bullied by various staff – because of the association with my father.
b) The emotional reason. I ended up going to QIT open day when I was in year 12. There was a film showing in a lecture theatre “How my law degree changed my life”. It was even more boring than it sounds. I wandered down to what seemed to be the world’s ugliest building, L block, which has thankfully now been demolished, put my money into a vending machine for a soft drink and out came a can of beer! Armed with my tinny, I went next door to the Botanic Gardens and as a 17 year old thought “this is the place for me!”
4. How I ended up doing Family Law
On graduating, I had the choice of doing what is now PLT or articles of clerkship. Pretty well everyone did the latter back then. We were paid a pittance and expected to work long hours. I had one boss who told me repeatedly, how lucky I was to be paid when in his day I would have to pay to be employed as an articled clerk. My job included taking the rubbish out, driving partners to social events, taking dry cleaning to the shop, driving here and yon to get trust account authorities, to retrieve files, acting as a waiter during my lunch hour for the firm’s partners and their clients, filing and all the other rubbish tasks that no-one else wanted to do and of course legal work.
At the university I had particularly enjoyed equity and trusts and thought therefore that I would enjoy commercial work. The jobs market for graduates back then was horrible, the worst it had ever been and not quite as bad as it is now. There were 29 other applicants for my position.
And then I discovered that insurance law, which is the main work that I did, was going to send me crazy. I thought it was the most singularly boring thing I’d ever done. If you enjoy insurance law, good luck to you. Quite simply, I didn’t. The firm did some family law. A female lawyer joined the firm. Her nickname was The Dragon. The rest of the office had become non-smoking, but her office was filled with smoke. Her files smelt of smoke. The air in her office either had a blue or grey hue, depending on sunlight.
She was a particularly good chucker. She would chuck her phone, keys, files or whatever came to hand in her anger in dealing with other lawyers, frustration of things not being done, or of course her clients. Being her underling, I was the recipient of much of this.
The Dragon also was singularly the one person I have met who had an extraordinary vocabulary and use of swearing. I have never met anyone who swore as much as she did.
And yet, The Dragon was extremely passionate about her clients. She was dealing with real people and their real problems. Her clients loved her, because she fought for them. They knew she cared.
I didn’t swear before I met her, and I have to confess I swear more now more than I would like. I don’t throw things. The Dragon inspired me to undertake family law. I had hated studying family law at university and I thought that of all the subjects I could do that would be the last. It was palm tree justice stuff. It wasn’t real law.
I stumbled into family law much the same way as I stumbled into law.
5. A passion for change
When I took my oath of office on admission, I said to myself that it wasn’t just enough that I was now admitted as a solicitor. I had to look to the high ideals of the profession. This included helping others and above all changing the law so that it was fair.
I have continued to have a passion for the law and for my clients. There are lawyers who are burnt out who simply should get out. I’m lucky that every day I wake up (at least most days) and think how lucky am I to be doing this job – to be able to change people’s lives, to enable people to stand on their own two feet.
Our clients have legal problems and they call upon us to try and solve them. Sometimes we make their problems worse. Sometimes what we do is ineffectual. It might be because of our own inadequacies, but more likely it’s theirs or the state of the law.
Some years ago I was phoned by an old client who phoned me to thank me. There was nothing particularly special about this day, except this phone call came out of the blue. I hadn’t heard from her in the previous seven years. She said that her life had changed and it had all been because of me. I then recounted what had happened in her case. She was an Aboriginal woman living in Brisbane. She had been the subject of horrific domestic violence. Her husband had roped in their teenage boys to also beat her up, with the result that on the day of separation the three of them threw her over the bonnet of their car, resulting in severe bleeding to her face, bruising and other injuries. She managed to make it to the local GP clinic. They patched her up. They called the police.
The police did not do their duty. The police took her to a women’s refuge. The police were obliged by law to consider charging him with an offence. She asked them to do so. They didn’t. The police were obliged to seek a protection order. They didn’t. Instead, she came to me and sought that I solve her legal problems. We complained about the police. I just wanted them to do their job. Eventually the husband was charged, and convicted, but he wasn’t jailed.
We managed to get a protection order, simply on the return day of the husband turned up late. By the time he turned up, the magistrate refused to revoke it. The husband didn’t apply to revoke it.
My client went to the Family Court to have her sons live with her. The family report said that the boys were completely under the influence of their father, couldn’t make a free decision and didn’t want to spend time with my client – and nothing could be done. My client gave up the court case.
I recounted these events to my client and said I tried everything I could, but it still felt bad. She said: “You changed my life.” How? She said: “Because I didn’t believe in myself. No-one believed in me. Not even me believed in me – but you and you alone believed in me, and that made all the difference.”
My client had married a very gentle man who was not a drunk or abusive. She had managed to obtain full-time employment in what many would consider a menial job – but given that she had a grade 3 education and was from the most disadvantaged group in the country, namely an Aboriginal woman, she was doing well. I delighted in her successes.
She then said her boys had shaken off their father and they were living with her.
I have a fundamental belief that all of us are equal under the law. This is the underpinning of our democracy. We all expect to be treated equally when we are before a court or subject to the rules of a statute. Unfortunately, the law has continued to discriminate and disempower.
Often when the law is changed to remove discrimination and to empower people, such as domestic violence legislation or the Family Law Act, lawyers or judges or police are reluctant to use those powers or in fact determined not to use them because of their personal views. It is my job as a lawyer acting for clients to uphold their rights. At times this becomes mighty uncomfortable for others and sometimes for myself. Family law is a hard business. I am constantly dealing with unhappy people who have split up and may have mental health issues. It is no walk in the park. Upholding the human rights of these clients and their children can be immensely satisfying.
6. How I got into surrogacy: turning disadvantage to advantage
I was not only a good technical lawyer, but it was perceived that I had courage. As a result, I had my first lesbian client back in 1992. In those days, acting for lesbians in family law was difficult. The law discriminated. If a woman left her husband for another woman she had better watch out – the kids were likely to be taken off her. Thankfully we don’t have that overt discrimination these days. From that small beginning, I had a succession of lesbian clients. Over time, I had a number of occasional trans clients and many gay clients.
Invariably, I would be asked about how to make babies – other than the old fashioned way. I started to give advice about artificial conception and then surrogacy.
In 2007 I started to blog. I am now the author of three blogs which don’t get enough time for me: The Australian Divorce Blog, Australian Gay and Lesbian Law Blog and the Australian Surrogacy and Adoption Blog.
I now do more surrogacy than anyone else. When the law was changing in 2008 onwards across Australia, I realised that I had a competitive advantage over everyone else. I had couples in Queensland coming to me seeking to become parents through surrogacy. Queensland was the only state that criminalised surrogacy here and there at all times. They asked the obvious question: “Given it’s not legal to do surrogacy here where is it legal?” As a result, I had to find out the law in every other State. Lawyers in other places didn’t do that. They just relied on their local law.
I thought that if Queensland wasn’t too slow, I would be able to use this competitive advantage and if I was really lucky, I would have a national practice. I now have that practice. I am the only lawyer to have appeared in four States in surrogacy matters: Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia. I have advised clients in all eight states and territories and at last count 24 countries overseas.
I have continued to press for change. This has resulted in me spending my own time in seeking change to occur, whether in submissions direct to ministers, or to parliamentary committees about surrogacy or gay rights or other issues or about domestic violence – I have just continued to push.
I don’t consider that I am particularly special but I know that if I don’t, then it’s likely that no-one else will. Having the skills of an articulate lawyer available to me and some resources with typing, I can push my message.
I have played a role in crafting the current Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012. I was part of a group of men, who were the first to argue that the Act say that domestic violence was gendered. None of the women’s groups argued that!
I caused a provision to go in the earlier Act and then in this Act to ensure that kids would not be the automatic victims in court of their parents’ court applications. Leave would be required before they could give evidence or be called as witnesses.
I caused a provision in this bill that before a magistrate made a domestic violence order, he or she would have to consider whether there was a family law order in place and whether that order should be stayed.
7. The sky is the limit!
When I left law school we all joked who would ever had a case about when life began. I had such a case. In 2012 the Childrens Court of Queensland was the first Court in the world to decide when a child was conceived. Judge Clare SC, on my submissions, found that conception of a child was at pregnancy, not at fertilisation of the embryo. This was necessary because of a case that I had under the Surrogacy Act. If it were the other way round, the intended parents could never become the parents of the child.
In 2011, I spoke at the world’s first International Surrogacy Conference – held in Las Vegas. I presented on the law back home, and because of nine systems of law the paper was almost 60 pages!
The chair of the Committee told me there was a proposal to have a Hague Convention on surrogacy, much like the Adoption Convention. I had had something to drink at that stage. In typical Australian bluntness, trained by The Dragon, I told him exactly what I thought. His response was to put me in charge of the project! He agreed with me entirely.
The culmination of thousands of hours of work occurred in February 2016 when the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association (the Association’s Parliament) approved the policy paper that I had steered and co-written to be the official policy of the American Bar Association as to a proposed Hague Surrogacy Convention. The paper which I had steered from my little office in Brisbane on the other side of the globe had been accepted as policy of approximately 400,000 attorneys in the world’s richest, largest and most influential lawyers’ group. If you had told me when I graduated that I would be doing family law or I would achieve that, I would have said “Tell him he’s dreaming!”
8. Courage to change
It is important that if we are practising law, we have passion as lawyers, as both the law and for our clients. The practice of law despite the long hours and the constant stress is a calling, not a business. Too often I have heard judges and barristers say to me that too rarely do lawyers reflect before putting something in action. Too often it is shoot first and think second.
I reflect on my matters. I do this when I am in the shower or in a vacant moment or even staring out the window.
It is important for all of us to have courage. I was a very quiet kid and shy. I am now very talkative. What changed was that I had to stand up in front of a stranger (a judge) and advocate for my clients. If I failed, they failed. I was not prepared to fail.
In June 2012, Attorney Bleijie wanted to turn the clock back and remove the recognition of lesbian co-partners as mothers and to criminalise gays, lesbians and singles for undertaking surrogacy.
I decided to fight this with all my might. I was told by colleagues that that was particularly stupid because the Government had the numbers and could push anything through. I was told to be concerned about my position. I was told that I was being brave. I said that I did not see that I was being brave but that given that I was the most prominent lawyer in this field if I didn’t act, I would be rightly accused of cowardice.
Ultimately, seven of us got together (I was the only lawyer) which became an organisation: Queenslanders for Equality. At a critical meeting I stupidly said: “So after today, who’s in charge?” I was unanimously elected as convenor!
Our chances of success in defeating the proposal were 0-3%. We were assisted by the community, the media, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, Queensland Law Society, the Opposition, LNP members and others. Ranged against us were the Australian Christian Lobby.
After nine months of fighting, there were only two of us, not seven. I received an email on a Monday from the other who said that he was burnt out, that he couldn’t do it anymore and that he was giving up. It was just me against the government. I felt the weight on my shoulders of this matter from the beginning but particularly on that day and for the next three days. On the Thursday came the news that the government had surrendered and that it was “deferring” the proposal. The proposal died then and there. We had, against the odds, won!
Never forget to have courage. Never forget that we can change the world for the better. Each of us no matter how small and insignificant we think we are, have the capacity to do so. Look into your heart and soul and you will see that courage with that, if you are smart and determined to get help from others, you can conquer the world. Good luck!