‘Systemic failures’ by the NSW Police, the Family Court System and the Firearms Registry cost two teenagers their lives in 2018 – deaths that the NSW Coroner has found were entirely ‘preventable.’
Jack Edwards aged 15, and his sister Jennifer, aged 13, were huddled together, terrified, under a desk in a bedroom when they were shot dead by their father John Edwards in July 2018.
According to witnesses, John Edwards then ‘half-skipped down the steps’ of the house before driving to his own home in West Pennant Hills, where he killed himself that evening.
The children’s distressed and grieving mother, Olga, committed suicide a few months later.
‘Litany of errors’
This week, the NSW Coronial Inquest into the tragic murder-suicide found that a series of errors by New South Wales Police, firearms registry staff and a Family Court lawyer meant that a man with a long history of family violence was able to purchase a gun to murder his children before turning it on himself.
The state coroner, Teresa O’Sullivan delivered her findings after a five-month long inquest which heard from more than 30 witnesses.
Her final report outlines 24 recommendations including improved mandatory domestic violence training for police officers, training for firearm registry staff to recognise risks of domestic violence, and increased information sharing between the firearms registry, police and the family court.
Investigations after the shootings revealed that Mr Edwards, a retired financial planner, had a “propensity for domestic violence and a history of psychological and physical assaults stretching back to the early 1990s.”
Olga was the seventh woman with whom John Edwards had children. He had 10 children in total and police records show that allegations of violence and stalking against him had been made in relation to four of his previous partners, one of his adult daughters and also Olga, Jack and Jennifer.
Police ‘misrecorded’ reports of violence and stalking
The inquest heard that when their marriage broke down in 2016 after years of abuse, Olga had made two reports to police about her ex-husband’s behaviour including his violence towards their son Jack. However, details were misrecorded by a senior constable who had never opened the police handbook on family violence, the coroner found.
In a second instance, when Olga reported that her ex-husband had shown up to her yoga class in early 2017, the officer she spoke to recorded the incident incorrectly, meaning it did not show up on John Edwards’ police record.
As a result, the coroner found, these “errors and omissions” meant that when John Edwards applied for a firearms licence the events did not show up on his file. The coroner also found that police, had “failed to undertake reasonable inquiries” in relation to both incidents reported by Olga.
In her findings, The Coroner was also highly critical of the role of the firearms registry, saying staff lacked formal training and failed to recognise Edwards’ long pattern of domestic violence when granting him a licence that allowed him to buy the deadly weapons he used to kill his children. Although she did note that NSW police have made significant changes to the firearms registry since the shootings which are intended to tighten processes and increase scrutiny of licence application and renewals.
The coroner also referred the independent children’s lawyer, Debbie Morton, who represented Jack and Jennifer in the family court, to the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner to “investigate whether any disciplinary action ought to be taken”.
The coroner found Ms Morton had not properly considered objective evidence, or the statements by Olga Edwards and the children, before addressing the family court in relation to any risk posed by John Edwards.
‘A stark reminder’ of systemic issues
In delivering her findings, coroner Teresa O’Sullivan said they were “a stark reminder of the broader systemic problems that face too many women and children every day”.
Already this year, nine women have been killed in Australia. A total of 55 were killed during 2020 – that’s more than one each week, and time and again experts say these dead women represent just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of domestic and family violence in Australia.
Thousands of women and children across the country are being subjected to violence and abuse every day, which, in the opinion of many, the state and federal governments are failing abysmally to address.