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‘Rare bigamy case’? Australia has a long and rich history of bigamy prosecutions

Mélanie Méthot*


Lawyer and former federal attorney-general Christian Porter.(ABC News: Jon Sambell)


Between 1816 and 1949, Australian courts prosecuted more than 3500 bigamists. Thanks to Trove, we know that the Australian press delighted in reporting the sad details that characterised the lives of many much-married men and women. Today, however, we no longer expect to find bigamists featuring as front-page news, which makes it all the more surprising that only recently, in June 2023, one Gary Henry White was fined $3000 for having gone through a form of marriage in Perth (or Broome?) three years earlier and remarrying an unsuspecting second woman while still legally married to his first.


According to section 94 of the 1961 Marriage Act, -- and as White’s fine shows - bigamy is still very much an offence in Australia.




Mr. White’s bigamy surfaced in February 2023 when news outlets covered the unusual charge.

The 48-year-old man was first married in Canada, and then is assumed to have lived for three years with his wife. After the couple’s separation in 2018, White did not wait long to marry again. During Covid, despite not yet being divorced from his Canadian wife, (who now lives in Sydney), White went through a form of marriage with another woman, doing so he committed bigamy.



Like the first relationship, that second union did not last long. After barely two years of “marital” life, White left his second spouse. Not yet blasé about matrimonial adventures, he quickly jumped into a new marriage. Since he had obtained a divorce from his first legal wife in September 2021, our Perth man did not commit bigamy when he married last November a third woman.






Through the magic of social media, the first wife discovered her ex had committed a serious offence and righteously contacted the newly abandoned bigamous wife. ABC News reported that “Australian Federal Police (AFP) leading Senior Constable Kevin Loermans said allegations of deception and bigamy were treated seriously. ‘This type of deception and offending has long-lasting and negative real-life impacts on the victims and families involved and the AFP will ensure allegations like this are investigated fully.’” Loermans’ remark suggests that the police had considerable expertise –and experience—in the matter of bigamy.



Perhaps alarmed by the possibility of spending five years in jail, the maximum sentence for such an offence, White secured the services of leading lawyer Christian Porter. Having read tens and thousands of historical articles in Trove, I can confirm that newspapers regularly identified each of the parties involved. Those parties would include of course the bigamist, the two (or sometimes three spouses!), arresting officer, key witnesses, and judge. Press also sometimes named the crown prosecutor and/or the defence attorney. When your counsel is no other than the former federal Attorney-General, it makes sense that the media not only specify his name but include a picture of the man himself. Unusually, all the journalists covering this current case have censored the names of the spouses, none mentions the witnesses, only a few identify the investigating officer, and some refer to Magistrate Catherine Crawford.


Joanna Menagh, senior court reporter for ABC News Perth, explains the situation quoting Porter’s claim that his client “‘paid a very high price’ for his crime, and his assertion that the publicity concerning the matter had a ‘very destructive impact’ on White’s relationship with his partner.” Painting the offender as the victim, she further cites Porter: “It has had an effect on him of considerable detriment on his professional and personal life.” Equally emphasising the victimhood of the condemned bigamist, The West Australian legal affairs editor Tim Clarke debuts his article with “Having two wives has cost a Perth man more than just public shame and private heartache.” In the past, only women bigamists benefitted from the sympathy of the press; male offenders were more typically portrayed as scoundrels.


If papers frequently refrained from providing possible motives, I have nevertheless read about individuals blaming drunkenness or even amnesic episodes for their commissions. Many justified their actions by stating the desire to provide a name for an illegitimate child. It is by devoting noteworthy space to White’s counsel’s list of mitigating factors that The West Australian editor paints White as a victim. Clarke shares: “The court was told that due to an ‘unplanned event’ with his second wife, he felt he needed to marry her.” The reporter does not fail to mention a very historically important concept: The bigamist remained a solid provider to his three children. Porter also pointed to the “significant gap in time” between the two marriages. Yet, if five years separate the two marriages, I calculate only two years between the end of the first and the start of the second, hence five years shy of the 7-year exception in law. Bigamists could indeed try to prove: “that the defendant's spouse had been continually absent from the defendant for the period of 7 years immediately preceding the date of the alleged offence and that, at the time of the alleged offence, the defendant had no reason to believe that the defendant's spouse had been alive at any time within that period.”


I find it revealing that Porter mentions our protagonist’s lack of “infidelity and cheating”, two terms which replace the customary reference to adultery. The former Attorney General insists that his client was remorseful for “the harm done to the two women,” but he does not elaborate on the said harm or their identities. Magistrate Crawford is more explicit: “I infer significant harm has been suffered by two women ... and quite a significant impact on (the second wife’s) emotional and psychological wellbeing.” Since the victims did not testify, the Judge might have been projecting her own ideas of their possible distress. Magistrate Crawford does not offer a new understanding of the offence. Historically, the harm was rarely assigned to the legal spouses and often onto the bigamous wives. Interestingly, the rest of her statement could have been lifted from those of her predecessors: “This type of offending is considered extremely serious in our culture, and as an adult, mature man … you committed that offence.” Often Australian judges stressed the gravity of the offence but still imposed upon the accused a typically light sentence, if they imposed one at all. Rather than imposing a gaol term as the law intends, Crawford explains: “A fine is the most appropriate penalty in order that it be understood generally in the community that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable.”




Judge Crawford’s statement clashes with public comments left on Reddit and Perth Daily Mail. One individual expresses his abhorrence towards the procedure: “What an absolute

[f…g] waste of taxpayer money. Who gives a flying [f..k] if he never filed some divorce paperwork jfc it shouldn’t even be a crime anyway.” Although some Daily Mail readers find all the fault to be with White, others follow the spirit of the previous comment when they post: “What’s the problem?”, “Just a paperwork error”, “Who cares”, “Not a big deal” or “And this makes the news on DM, why?” Those commentators apparently sided with Porter’s take on ‘poor Mr. White’.


Few convicted male bigamists have dared to formulate grievances the way White’s counsel did. I can think of Frederick Richardson who complained in 1916 that Truth’s scathing coverage of his marital transgressions forced him to seek work in a different state. Stay tuned to learn more about this famous jockey’s marital woes.


*I would like to thank Marian Lorrison and Mark Heinrich for their suggestions


REFERENCES


AFP editor, “Alleged bigamist charged in WA,” AFP.gov.au, 10 February 2023, https://www.afp.gov.au/news-media/media-releases/alleged-bigamist-charged-wa.


James Carmody, "Perth man arrested for allegedly having two wives," ABC News, 10 February 2023, , https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-02-10/perth-man-arrested-for-allegedly-having-two-wives-bigamy-case/101957646 .


Tim Clarke, “Gary Henry White: Perth bigamist fined $3000 for wedding second wife while still married to his first,” The West Australian, 30 June 2023, https://thewest.com.au/news/court-justice/gary-henry-white-perth-bigamist-fined-3000-for-wedding-second-wife-while-still-married-to-his-first-c-11137917.


Daily Mail Australia Reporter, “Tradie admits marrying woman while still wedded to his first wife - and when his new partner found out she was FURIOUS,” Daily Mail, July 1 2023, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12251275/Gary-Henry-White-Perth-admits-bigamy-marrying-twice.html.


Jasmine Kazlauskas, “Perth man sentenced for bigamy after marrying two women,” News.com.au, 30 June 2023, https://www.news.com.au/national/courts-law/perth-man-sentenced-for-bigamy-after-marrying-two-women/news-story/2ca5295959094e17fd1e1a6a9338a169.



Melbourne Truth, 19 August 1916, p.5.



Joanna Menagh, “Perth man Gary Henry White admits he was married to two women in rare bigamy case.” ABC News Perth, 30 June 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-06-30/bigamist-gary-henry-white-sentenced-over-wives-saga/102546964.


Ok_Writer1572, “Perth man Gary Henry White admits he was married to two women in rare bigamy case,” reddit, 30 June 2023, https://www.reddit.com/r/perth/comments/14mvnz3/perth_man_gary_henry_white_admits_he_was_married/ .


Aja Styles, “Magistrate Catherine Crawford continues in role after withdrawing ‘bullying’ case,” WAtoday, 14 October 2021, https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/magistrate-catherine-crawford-withdraws-bullying-case-against-judge-hylton-quail-20211013-p58zq8.html .






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