When Sarah Johnson's husband left her out of the blue, threatening to take half of the marital home, along with multiple timeshare properties she'd personally paid for, her world was instantly torn apart.
"I was gutted," says Johnson (not her real name). "I thought our marriage was great."
After the initial shock, she cast her mind back to a Facebook message she'd received from a stranger. It had said her husband was having an affair with a woman he'd met on an overseas trip – an accusation she dismissed at the time, and which was vehemently denied by her husband.
Now he'd left her and with her life savings on the line, Johnson knew the only way she would have the strength to fight her husband was if she knew for sure whether or not he'd been having an affair or not.
"When he left, I had no forwarding address, no email, no work phone, no nothing, and I was still in shock," she says. "I felt totally abandoned, so I decided to find a private investigator."
Following a period of research and surveillance, Johnson soon had her fears confirmed; her husband had started an affair with the woman after they'd met on holiday.
They'd even stayed in Johnson's timeshare properties on multiple occasions. It was a silly mistake that caught him out.
"I had no idea there was anything wrong with my marriage," she says. "I'm so glad I used a PI, it gave me the strength to carry on and fight."
With renewed determination to fight for what was hers, Johnson used her private investigator to access property and finance information to assist with her family law case.
"This came in very handy for my solicitor. My ex was trying to take me for half of everything, he has put in nothing, but wanted everything," she says.
"(The PI) has brought so much more to light. My goal now is to get my ex out of my life and not lose my house, which I have worked so hard for."
The use of private investigators in family law cases is a growing trend, particularly when it comes to infidelity, property settlement and increasingly, domestic violence protection.
Rafe MacLennan, company director of global private investigations firm, AOSG, says individuals seeking out the services of private investigators are often looking for nothing more than peace of mind, while others are seeking to protect themselves financially, or reduce the risk of ongoing domestic violence.
"They may suddenly find themselves in a terrible situation and if they are in a relationship where children are involved, they really want to be sure of the facts before making a decision to leave," he explains.
"When couples separate, there are so many considerations to take into account, along with the many uncertainties the future may hold which they have to deal with before they can move on with their lives," continues MacLennan.
"Usually they have contacted us because their instincts have already told them something is wrong."
AOSG has also been engaged to conduct surveillance and protection services to ensure the welfare of children while under supervision of a particular family member, as well as conduct assets searches when one party suspects the other has been hiding assets.
"We also conduct surveillance to prove if one of the parties is committing offences that either constitutes or breaches existing domestic violence orders," he said.
For Stacey Appleton, a messy family court case, further marred by domestic violence and suspected illegal behaviour, prompted her decision to access a private investigator.
"My ex-partner lived by the motto that rules were made to be broken. He is also very convincing and has a gift for manipulating the truth to suit his narrative," says Appleton (not her real name).
"Given we were in the midst of family court I needed hard evidence to prove my allegations, and I needed these to come from a reputable source.
"The ex-partner drinks and drives, is unlicensed, and has a history of stalking," says Appleton.
"He changed cars early on in the process, and I needed to find out what he was driving to keep my kids and myself safe at school drop off and collection."
Appleton believed her former husband wasn't adhering to court orders, but required hard evidence in court.
"I needed evidence from a reputable source so that it was not just a case of my word against his."
After surveillance on her ex, Appleton was able to prove her suspicions, demonstrating a pattern of behaviour in court, which resulted in the issuing of a stronger order to keep her and her family safe.
Although the use of private investigators can be highly effective, MacLennan says it's not like in the movies, and there are some limitations.
"Although investigators are licensed to carry out some services above what an 'ordinary' individual can do, such as covert surveillance, this does not give us permission to break common laws, such as privacy acts, telecommunication act, criminal codes etc," he says.
"We are constrained by the law just the same as everyone else."
Johnson believes more people should consider accessing PI services to maintain strength during messy separations.
"There are people that can help you find the answers to you need to carry on, not cave in or give up," she says.
"I was happy with the result and I now have a solicitor and barrister who can help, thanks to accessing information I would never have been able to find out.
"The PI has the license to find out what the average person can't."
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE - DO YOU NEED HELP?
If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you're in danger now:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay
Where to go for help or more information:
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice:
• National Network of Stopping Violence:
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent.
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