Justice, solidarity and friendship forged:
It was a homeschooling get-together of a different kind on Sunday 23 June 2019 at the Queens Wharf Hotel in Newcastle, one where old and new friends met, their online friendship forged anew by a shared sense of justice, solidarity and common ordeal.
Four of those attending - April Jermey, Myfanwy Dibben, Tamara Kidd and Kerry Wennersten – were wrongfully sued last year, named as defendants in a NSW Supreme Court case involving the Home Education Association. All four were dismissed or discontinued with no case to answer.
The cold and rainy day did not dampen the spirits of the cleared defendants or their supporters as they gathered to enjoy a tasty and hearty meal in the breezy bistro. Live music added to the celebration of friendship.
Families from the Illawarra and Sydney joined the locals, with well-known home educator and author Beverley Paine coming from South Australia. The Paines cited catching up with past president Esther Lacoba, instrumental in helping fact-check the defense for lawyers representing the Association, as a highlight of the afternoon.
“Our last meeting was on a homeschool camp on Kangaroo Island ten years ago,” said Mr Paine. Ms Paine added that she and Ms Lacoba had served on the HEA committee back then and said, “Esther has more knowledge of the association than anyone I know.”
When asked about the impact of being taken to court the four defendants were upbeat and positive.
Ms Jermey said she'd developed a “new found respect for lawyers” having worked with them for both her defence and that of the association, as well as a re-discovery of her interest in “legalese, neglected since studying law and criminal justice at university almost 20 years ago.” She said she feels “an intense bond and kinship” and that the four defendants are “all stronger for the suffering” they have been through together.
Having “resigned as a committee member", Ms Dibben expressed her surprise at finding herself summoned to court last July, facing “demands for her to personally hand over assets, restore membership and president status, and authorize an invalid meeting”.
Ms Dibben could not afford a lawyer and represented herself during the hearings and won her costs. “I was never negotiated with,” she said. “This entire affair began with a culture of bullying that I stood up and said ‘no more' to. I have gained… a sense of self-confidence in my ability to stand up in court or any other public and stressful situation and defend my case with clarity. I know I will never be bullied again.”
“Court vindicated us,” said former HEA admin Ms Kidd, going on to add, “Every lawyer, and every employee of Fair Work, Business Australia, and the Australian Taxation Office I've spoken with has been just as disgusted as we have. … A positive has been the congruency of all who see the evidence for themselves… a cohort of hundreds of home educators who support us.”
Ms Kidd and Ms Wennerstan expressed thanks to the dozens of home educating families that supported a GoFundMe fundraising campaign with donations to help with legal costs.
The HEA's other admin, Ms Wennersten, felt “bitter sweet” about the strong bonds forged between good friends by the ordeal: “I've worked with an awesome person who has always had my back, and my family praises me for my strength and resilience... Yes, I'm strong and won't compromise my integrity but it's come at a huge price.”
Ms Kidd reported that the impact had been “profound” on herself and her children. A single home educating mum, Ms Kidd said that not being paid while required by the court to continue working for the association meant she needed to find additional work to cover the cost of rent and food for her children.
“I had to step out of my masters degree and take the graduate certificate instead because of the time required to assist the HEA lawyers at the same time as assignments were due,” said Ms Kidd, lamenting the loss of future earning potential. “Due to court I lost my income, used all my hard earned savings.” Savings, Ms Kidd said, that were part of a long term plan to build her own home and provide future security.
Each said that the countless hours needed to prepare their defence and that of the association had robbed them of family and educational time with their children. However, Ms Dibben said, “I want to show strength to my kids, show them that they need to be strong in the face of abuse.”
All four reported ongoing health issues related to the stress of the past year, including sleep deprivation, appetite and weight loss, depression and an increase in the severity and frequency of existing health conditions.
“Some days I couldn't stop crying from the pressure of needing to find everything the lawyers needed to defend me in the Supreme Court,” said Ms Jermey, whose RAAF husband was deployed in the Middle East at the time. “My 8 year old asked me why I was crying and I couldn't explain it to him – heck, it was so nonsensical I found it difficult to explain to adults.”
Ms Jermey said that her lawyers required her to sign a cost agreement guaranteeing payment up to $40,000 before they would defend her. “I learned that 100% costs paid is a very rare outcome – even if wrongfully sued you can expect to be out of pocket… That money was taken from my family…” She said she was grateful that the association's insurer reimbursed her for her costs once the case was concluded, although that was eight months after she had been released from the case.
When a technicality, initially pointed out by Ms Dibben, meant the association was switched from Plaintiff 1 to Defendant 5 by the plaintiffs in October 2018, its lawyers required the dismissed and discontinued defendants to write affidavits for its defence.
“This took place over Christmas and New Year, with edits done during an interstate move, literally while in temporary accommodation… This whole experience was incredibly inconvenient, invasive and stressful to our family life,” said Ms Jermey.
They reported that the ongoing innuendos and slanderous comments about them on social media continue to cause angst.
“My business suffered an extreme downturn in sales, and I have grounds for a defamation case against those who defamed me, however I have no appetite for court or to take money from other home educators,” said Ms Jermey.
Ms Dibben said that her family had experienced “financial hardship” as plans for starting a small home-based business to support home educating her children had to be shelved, due to the damage being done to her name in the home educating community by the supporters of the people that had sued her.
“This time has tested me and I now know without a doubt that I am decent person,” said Ms Kidd, who has reported a decrease in the number of people seeking her help and expertise with home education registration applications.
“I would never treat people the way I've been treated,” she said. “Now the court case is over and we're no longer legally obliged to stay silent people are learning what has really happened, so I'm hopeful the truth can finally be heard.”
Ms Paine summed up how most of the party sharing lunch felt: “I was ridiculed last year for publicly saying home educators taking home educators to court would cost the association and its members, and it has. I can't see how the association can repair the damage that has been done.”
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