The Family Law Act, passed by the Australian government in 1975, enshrined that married couples were no longer obliged to show grounds for divorce and could instead, obtain one by claiming that their relationship had suffered irreconcilable breakdown. The Act further established the Family Court of Australia, enabling them legal power over a range of complex matters, such as parental responsibility, custody and no-fault divorce.
The new courts secured unprecedented popularity amongst spouses across Australia, including Andrea Blanchard and Leonard Warwick, appearing to file for divorce and determine custody of their daughter in 1979. To Leonard’s dissatisfaction, he conferred visitation rights as his ex-wife was given full custody of their daughter, resulting in a deep-seated resentment that would ultimately reveal itself in a string of murders against individuals of the Family Court of Australia.
Leonard’s first victim was Justice David Opas, a Family Court judge who had first presided over the pair’s divorce and custody battle. Repeated violations of his visiting rights led to Justice Opas threatening to charge Leonard with contempt of court. On 23rd June 1980, the judge suffered a bullet wound from a 22-calbre weapon and passed away soon after. Leonard was arrested on separate charges but was later acquitted as a suspect after a lack of physical evidence.
After Opas’ death, Justice Richard Gee ensured responsibility over Andrea and Leonard’s case. In 1983 and 1984, the judge required Leonard to sell their family residence and split the profits with his ex-wife; an order that would tragically lead to the bombing of his own home in 1984. Meanwhile, the Family Court registry in which Leonard’s cases were tried was simultaneously bombed, demolishing half of the building. Leonard was named prime suspect but was frustratingly cleared (again) after declining to answer any questions.
Rightfully cautious, Justice Ray Watson took over his predecessor’s case and restricted Leonard’s time with his daughter. On the morning of 4th July 1984, Pearl Watson (Justice Watson’s wife) unlocked the front door of the couple’s unit, setting off an explosive on the doorstep that instantly killed her. Justice Watson was likely the target, but still suffered extensive injuries as a result. In the 1980s, Australian law could only guarantee a conviction based on direct evidence, not circumstantial, offering a clear-cut explanation as to why Leonard was not charged.
Leonard’s next target, albeit unsuccessful, was Andrea’s new legal counsel, Gary Watts and was enough to scare her into fleeing to Sydney with the aid of her Jehovah’s Witnesses community. As such, Leonard broke into the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church and later planted a fatal bomb that injured over a hundred and killed one. Unfortunately for Leonard, his hasty break-in left blood on the church window that would be crucial in his eventual inditement.
The Evidence Act 1995 contributed significantly to a successful conviction as it facilitated verdicts “on circumstantial evidence,” asserting that “direct evidence of a crime is not always required.” This, accompanied with advanced genetic testing, helped convict Leonard Warwick on three life sentences for four murder charges and twenty-eight additional ones in 2020, three decades after his brutal crimes. Thus, the ratification of key legislation was pivotal in reaching a much-needed conviction; an idea that is necessary in recognising how family law can be improved and how it has developed over the years.