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We’ve all had times when we can’t recall a conversation someone else swears we had. Often, one person in a relationship is more adamant about their memory than the other person. Usually, those mini-disputes are minor blips in an intact relationship. But what if it’s no longer an intact relationship? What if the “he said/ she said” dispute becomes part of family law proceedings?

One party might be tempted to secretly record their conversations with their ex-spouse or partner. But, is that lawful, and even if it is, is it a good idea?

Is it lawful to intercept a phone conversation?

The short answer is no. It is a federal offence to intercept (or tap) a phone conversation or other form of telecommunication. There are, of course, exceptions for ASIO, the police and similar organisations, but those exceptions wouldn’t apply in a family law situation.

Similarly, Australian law generally prohibits the recording of a private conversation between other people, to which the person doing the recording was not a party.

But what if you’re a party to the conversation?

Whether or not it’s lawful to secretly record a conversation (phone or otherwise) to which the person doing the recording is a party depends on the State or Territory in which the recording takes place. That is, such secret recording are permissible in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory. However, it is prohibited in the other States and Territories – the ACT, New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.

The penalties for breaching the laws about intercepting or secretly recording a conversation vary, but can include paying damages to the other person and a term of imprisonment.

Can a secret recording be used as evidence in the Family Court?

Again, that will depend on where the recording took place and whether it was lawful in that State or Territory. In other words, if the secret recording took place in Victoria, Queensland or the NT and was, therefore, lawful, that recording could be used as evidence in family law proceedings.

However, if the recording was made in one of the States or Territories in which it is prohibited (ACT, NSW, Tasmania, SA and WA), the Court would have discretion whether or not to admit the recording into evidence. The Court would weigh up the benefit to the determination of the case in admitting the recording evidence, compared to the detriment to the parties and the justice of the case in allowing one of them to rely on illegally obtained evidence. Further, just because the illegal secret recording is admitted into evidence, the person who made the recording may still be liable to prosecution or damages for their offence.

Even if it’s lawful, should you do it?

The answer to this question will, of course, depend on the particular circumstances of the individual case. In a case where there are serious, regular disagreements about who said what and when, perhaps because drug or alcohol abuse or significant mental illness are involved, secretly recording conversations might be justified, in those jurisdictions where it is legal to do so.

However, even in cases where the secret recording of conversations might be tempting or may even seem warranted, before embarking on that course of action, the person wishing to do the recording should consider the future impact of considerable breakdown of trust in their relationship with the other person. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to continue to trust someone if you find out they have been recording their conversations with you without your knowledge. Ongoing trust between a separating couple is particularly important where children are involved and the couple need to share a parenting relationship into the future.

A middle ground option to secretly recording conversations with an ex-partner, regardless of whether or not it is lawful to do so in the particular jurisdiction, would be to make detailed notes of the conversations, as soon as possible after the conversations have ended. Such notes would be of significant benefit in preparing evidence for any family law proceedings, without jeopardising trust by secretly recording the conversations.

Conclusion

Whether or not it is lawful to secretly record a conversation, phone or otherwise, with an ex-partner depends on the State or Territory in which the recording is made. If the recording is unlawful, not only is there a risk that it will not be admitted into evidence in family law proceedings, the person making the recording could be liable to both civil damages and criminal prosecution. Even if it is lawful to secretly record a conversation with an ex, it isn’t necessarily a good idea to do so. A safer course of action might be to make notes of, rather than secretly record, the conversation.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on (02) 9502 2922 or email paul@falzonlegal.com.au.