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Navigate Senate Committees

Murphy, a member of the committee from 1971 to 1973 and subsequently the Attorney-General, went on to introduce the Family Law Bill 1974 in the Senate, which sought a complete reform of family and divorce law in Australia amid a period of great social change and expectation.

The committee’s ongoing inquiry was broadened to include consideration of the bill and its final report, tabled in October 1974, made a number of significant recommendations to improve it. These included the introduction of the principle of ‘no-fault’ divorce and the establishment of the Family Law Council and the Family Court of Australia.

Nearly all the committee’s recommendations were adopted and the bill was passed into law with a substantial majority, coming into effect from 5 January 1976.

Lois D’Arcy. (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Marriage celebrants

Another of Lionel Murphy’s achievements as Attorney-General was the 1973 establishment of the Civil Marriage Celebrant Program. Murphy, who felt strongly that non-churchgoers should have the option of a meaningful secular ceremony, personally appointed the first hundred civil celebrants.

Murphy was opposed by his political party, public servants and even his personal staff. On 19 July 1973, defying them all, he hand-typed a letter appointing 26-year-old Lois D’Arcy (left) as Australia’s first civil celebrant and posted it to her in the middle of the night.

Murphy’s initiative was ultimately extraordinarily popular—almost 80 per cent of Australian marriages are now performed by civil celebrants.

The Bolam divorce case in court’, Illustrated Australian News (Melbourne), 3 October 1883, p. 156, State Library Victoria, IAN03/10/83/156

Dreadful divorces

Before 1976, almost all divorce cases required one spouse to prove that their partner was guilty of cruelty, adultery or desertion—there was no such thing as a mutually agreed divorce. In some cases, divorcing couples had to invent scenarios and manufacture evidence.

As one submission to the committee noted, this adversarial system could only result in ‘bitterness and hatred between two people who once were friends and lovers’.

An already difficult situation was made worse by the lack of discretion and privacy. Newspapers freely published the sordid details of divorce cases and identified those involved.

Find out more

Alan Joseph Missen, committee member 1974-86, Interview with Toby Miller, 1980

National Library of Australia, TRC 732, session 3, 00:26:34-00:30:11.
Full interview available at

Australian Institute of Family Studies , Family Matters no. 60 (September 2001)

The Australian Women’s Weekly, 7 October 1970, p. 7