Since the merger of the Federal Circuit and Family Court almost 12 months ago, it has become common practice during the early stages of a child custody dispute for a Registrar or Judge to order a Child Impact Report.
The power for the Court to order these reports is found within section 11f and section 62g Family Law Act 1975, which are the same sections utilised to order reports, short reports, and memorandums prior to the merger. The sections allows the Court, upon its own motion, or upon the Application of a party or independent children’s lawyer, to order one or more parties and subject children to attend upon a Court Child Expert or Family Consultant for an appointment or series of appointments. After these appointments a report is produced to assist the Court and the parties to determine what is in a Child’s Best Interests.
Regulation 7 Family Consultant or Court Child Expert?
The primary difference between a Child Expert and Regulation 7 Family Consultant is the Child Expert is an employee of the Court working in the Court Children’s Services department, whilst a Regulation 7 Family Consultant is a private practitioner engaged by the Court on a fee for service basis. Further, the duties of the Child Expert are wider in scope than the Family Consultant.
Typically, these practitioners are professionally qualified as either psychologists or social workers and have specialist knowledge and experience in dealing with children from separated families, family violence and other issues associated with relationship breakdown.
A person who is engaged as a Child Expert holds a statutory appointment as a Family Consultant and an authorisation to act as a Family Counsellor however, they cannot take the role of a Family Consultant or Family Counsellor in the same case that they have been appointed a Child Expert.
Child Impact Report
The Child Impact Report is usually ordered to occur at an early stage of the parenting dispute. Having this information early is of assistance to the Court and parties to understand how the separation and issues arising from the separation are affecting children.
The types of issues explored include:
- The nature of the children’s relationship with each parent and other family members relevant to the orders sought.
- The children’s views with respect to any aspect of the orders sought by a party.
- How post separation changed circumstances are affecting the children.
- Obtaining information with respect to the children’s developmental needs and experiences.
- Investigating what future arrangements may best meet children’s needs.
- Making recommendations for further information and/or steps to be taken to facilitate or assist with the above.
- Primarily the purpose of the report is to assist the Judge or Registrar to understand the issues specific to the family in framing interim orders and for case management moving forward.
The Child Impact Report process
The process commences when the order is made for the parties and children to attend with a Court Child Expert. The date for the appointment may be given by the Judge or Registrar either at the time the order is made, or notification may issue from the Court subsequently. The costs of the report are met by the Court.
Once ordered parties are required to attend and any failure to attend may result in delay, an adverse costs order being made against the non-compliant party or even an adverse inference as to a party’s attitude towards their responsibilities as a parent.
The process typically followed to produce the report is as follows:
- Each parent meets separately with the Court Child Expert for approximately an hour and a half or so. The Expert will have likely read the documents filed in the Court and ask questions regarding proposals, post separation parenting, difficulties and issues, family violence etc. It is not uncommon for these meetings to occur via a video link.
- After the parents have had their meetings, an appointment will be made for the child or children to meet with the Expert. Children may meet separately or together. The purpose of the meeting is for the Expert to offer to the children the opportunity to express their views, experiences, concerns and feelings regarding the separation, arrangements and other issues relevant to the proceeding. These interviews are conducted so as to present a safe and neutral environment for the children. While children have the opportunity to present their point of view there is no compulsion for them to speak if they don’t want to.
It is important to note that if there are issues of personal safety the Court should be made aware prior to engaging for the first meeting. Notification can be made by calling the national Enquiry Centre on 1300 352 000. The Court will work with an affected person to put in place a safety plan.
It is also important to note that the conversations between parties, children and the Expert are admissible as evidence in the proceeding. This is important to note because in some circumstances such as counselling or mediation the discussions are confidential and protected from disclosure. Also, the Court Child Expert is required to notify relevant authorities (Police or DOCS) in the event a disclosure is made during the process causing a reasonable suspicion that abuse or risk of abuse or harm has occurred.
After the Report has been completed
Once the Report has been written it will usually be sent to a party or their lawyer prior to the next Court event. The recommendations, observations and accounts form part of the evidence in the case and will likely be used to facilitate agreements between the parties or submissions if a defended hearing is required.
At an interim hearing there is not no automatic right to cross examine the Court Child Expert. However, a Senior Judicial Registrar or Judge does have the power to require the Expert to be available for cross examination if the case requires it. But this is not at all typical. There is no ability for a party to have a further discussion with the Expert after the report has issued. If the matter is to proceed beyond the interim stage to a full hearing (i.e. a Trial) it is likely a full Family Report will be ordered if issues addressed in the Child Impact report remain unresolved and in dispute.
Peter Hooper – Hooper and Mill Family Lawyers – We are family lawyers in Brisbane. Find us searching family lawyers Brisbane; divorce lawyers Brisbane; family lawyer Brisbane; Brisbane family lawyers; family law solicitors Brisbane; divorce lawyer Brisbane; family law lawyers Brisbane; divorce solicitors Brisbane; divorce lawyers in Brisbane; best divorce lawyer Brisbane.