Alan Bristol with his three daughters, Claudia, Holly and Tiffany. Their mum, Christine Bristol, says her lovely, cheeky, friendly, hard-case girls
Alan Bristol with his three daughters, Claudia, Holly and Tiffany. Their mum, Christine Bristol, says her lovely, cheeky, friendly, hard-case girls "loved their dad". Michael Craig

Tragedy in a picture-perfect family

Alan Bristol: doting father, successful businessman, handsome guy. He looks like quite the catch as he smiles from the pages of Christine Bristol's photo albums.

"We were a normal family," she says, turning pages and telling stories about the three lovely little blonde girls beaming back at her.

It's an amazing statement because the Bristols' three daughters - Tiffany Anne, 7, Holly Alyse, 3, and Claudia Abby, 18 months - were all killed by their father when he took his own life.

Almost 20 years have passed since Alan did the unthinkable and gathered up his peacefully sleeping daughters from their beds, laid them in the back of his car parked in the garage of their Wanganui home, and started the engine.

"He'd taken them out of their beds and put them in the back with their cuddly blankets and bits and pieces," says Christine.

Alan Bristol was found slumped between them. His last act, committed amidst a tumultuous separation from Christine, prompted a law change in 1995 aimed at boosting protection of children in custody disputes where violence is alleged.

It's the one consolation Christine has from her girls' deaths. But proposed Family Court law reforms could undo that.

"It's coming up 20 years since the children died," she says. "It's actually done a lot of good: Why they want to go backwards I don't know. It opens that crack again for manipulation of the children against the victim. It opens up avenues for them to attack the victim again.

"It's going back over old ground, opening cracks. I can't see why they want to undo something that's been doing so well and go backwards. We're supposed to be going forwards."

Christine, now 50, is living in rural Waikato and has built a career working in social services. She enrols in the occasional university paper and shares her tragic experiences with "Diploma of Child Protection" students.

She is also in a loving marriage with husband of 12 years, Dean.

They have chooks, a burgeoning vege garden, a boisterous dog called Jelly, and lots of photos on the walls of little girls.

In a poignant twist, Dean, whom she met 15 years ago, also has three daughters. If her daughters were still alive today Tiffany would now be 27, Holly 23, and Claudia would be turning 21 on August 19. Her stepdaughters are roughly the same ages. Jayde is 27, Alexa is 25, and Zara, 19, was born exactly five days after Christine's girls died.

Christine will probably make a cake for Claudia's 21st, and today she's wearing a "blingy" bracelet given by colleagues to mark the anniversary of their deaths last month.

"I talk about them all the time. They give me great pride, because you know they were great kids."

From time to time she asks Dean: "Is there any way I annoy you to the extent that I annoyed Alan?" He says: "No, I can't comprehend it."

Alan Bristol moulded and bullied her into the person he wanted her to be, Christine says.

"He was an absolute perfectionist, extremely intelligent, strongwilled, a very focused young man. He was the blond-haired, blue-eyed golden boy. He's a very handsome striking man but deeply manipulative, too. He doesn't have 'domestic violence' tattooed on his forehead, I mean how would you know?"

The answer's simple: You wouldn't.

The bill before Parliament's justice and electoral committee proposes an overhaul of the Family Court. It promises to modernise the court, make it more accessible and save money. Changes include a new pre-court Family Dispute Resolution service for parents and families to take arguments about children, at a cost of $897 to be shared between the parties, the removal of "counsel for child" from all but serious cases and the repeal of clauses that ensure courts considered all aspects of a child's safety.

Those clauses came about as a direct result of the Bristol girls' deaths.

Alan and Christine met when they were both aged 21 and married at 25, when Tiffany was a baby.

"I absolutely adored him. I was besotted with him and I deeply loved the guy. I don't hate him now. I'm deeply disappointed. But I was always brought up that no matter what people do, they deserve respect and dignity when they pass away."

Christine's photo albums are filled with "happy family" shots of three girls who should have grown up and looked back on a perfect childhood.

Like good parents, Alan and Christine tried to give their children everything they could want or need. They had a trampoline, swimming pool, barbecue, and a sprawling lawn. Christine has photos of Tiffany riding a pony, family trips to Rainbow's End and the zoo, the girls sliding down the dinosaur at Wanganui's Kowhai Park, splashing in a paddling pool on the lawn the summer they died and playing dress-ups. She has certificates praising Tiffany for her efforts and helpfulness during her final term at school, and pictures from that last Christmas, just over a month before they died.

On the surface it looks idyllic, but Christine says Alan wasn't going to let her see the girls on Christmas Day if they didn't spend it all together.

Her lovely, cheeky, friendly, hard-case girls "loved their dad". But from early on in their relationship there were problems. She took out non-violence and non-molestation orders against him, but they'd patch things up and try again. There were rapes and violent assaults. In mid-1993 he forced her to leave and the girls stayed behind.

"I couldn't live with him any more and I felt like I wasn't being a proper mum, he'd taken all that away because I was too busy trying to keep one step ahead of him."

They made an informal agreement over care of the girls but they ended up going to court.

She and Alan tried mediation, but she'd turn up and he wouldn't. Then, when it came time to go to court, she and Alan would end up alone in the same room.

"I was being assaulted waiting to go into court - in the face, physically and emotionally. I would be in tears and they never asked questions.

"They were just wanting to speed the process through court. Get in. Get out."

She was constantly on edge, looking over her shoulder, yet she was portrayed as a trouble-maker.

Alan filed for and was granted interim custody after she took the two youngest out of town for a couple of days to a friend's place.

"It was classic," she says, of the assault he inflicted early in February.

She was returning Holly and Claudia to the former matrimonial home where Alan continued to live. Tiffany was already there with a friend. He pinned her against the garage wall and assaulted her with her own car keys, asking about a man she'd had a one-off dinner with.

"He was tormenting me with my keys. Bubby - Claudia - was at the door, Holly was next to me hitting him on the leg, and Tiffany was there with her friend watching. She had a glazed look. Poor little thing, he messed with her head badly."

She fought back but he wouldn't relinquish the keys until she begged.

Her flatmate, a policeman, encouraged her to report the incident. Alan was arrested the next day, and charged, and released on bail. He went home and killed himself and the girls.

Christine's girls were each buried with a photo of their mum. At the end of our interview, Christine goes into a bedroom and brings out three photos, holding them close to her chest.

"This is going to be hard for you, darling," she says, "But this is what I have to live with everyday."

She places them down on the table: Three little girls lying in three little white satin-lined coffins. Like perfect dolls except their perfect porcelain features are rosy with carbon-monoxide poisoning.

On February 8, 1994 - the day of their funeral - Alan Bristol's lawyer Garry Spooner was reported in the Herald defending his client.

"He was devoted to his kids," Spooner said. "Certainly the kiddies thought Dad was just the best."

In the same article, the officer in charge of the investigation said police had been involved in the Bristols' "domestic situation" for several years but had not been able to substantiate any charges of violence until the indecent assault.

Incensed by the story, Christine responded with a press release that she'd been the victim of domestic violence for a long time, and called for an inquiry. Within weeks Sir Ronald Davison started an inquiry and, says Christine, "it felt like something really productive was on the brink of happening".

Davison's inquiry found that at the time of the girls' deaths, the court knew Alan was violent but failed to act on that knowledge in decisions on custody of the three children. As a result, new laws were enacted to protect children of violent relationships.

Last month, a parliamentary select committee closed submissions on the new Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill.

The committee is due to report back in June. The new bill would unstitch some of the changes that stemmed from Davison's inquiry. It would ask parents to first try to sort things out for themselves through a new Family Disputes Resolution (FDR) process, under the court umbrella but without lawyers. Christine foresees problems - Alan Bristol didn't even turn up to court-sponsored mediation meetings.

Christine is not alone in her anger at the proposed law change - some lawyers are also concerned.

Auckland family lawyer Lope Ginnen has acted as "counsel for child" in hundreds of cases. She says the FDR means nobody is appointed to look out for the child's wishes or best interests.

"When people are that stressed out it's difficult to make good decisions. You need someone who isn't so emotionally involved in it."

The Law Society supports the repeal of some of the Bristol case law changes, but acknowledges members disagree on the matter.

The argument goes that the law already mandates that a child's safety is at the forefront of the court's mind when determining care arrangements, and this is enough. The current system takes unnecessary court time and money and is a significant factor in court delays and in legal aid and lawyer for child costs.

But opponents of the new law say the existing rules allow violence to be looked at in a clear way. There is concern that without the rules the requirement to protect a child's safety might be diluted.

Nobody can say whether Christine Bristol's girls would be alive today if the law had been different in 1994.

But nearly 20 years on, she's proud of her daughters, and proud of her own achievements to try to help others in the same situation she was in back then.

"I did it for the legacy of my children.

"What I managed to achieve has been a huge healing process for me. It's not a perfect world but I never dreamed in a million years that I would achieve something like this."

Now, that legacy could be about to end.