During parenting proceedings in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (“the Court”), the Court usually requires independent expert evidence to assist in determining orders that are in the children’s best interests. There are two main ways the Court will obtain this evidence.
Child Impact Reports
Section 11F of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) gives power to the Court to order the parties to attend interviews with a Family Consultant, being a qualified psychologist or social worker, who will prepare a Child Impact Report. The purpose of a Child Impact Report is to address the views of the parents and the children in the earlier stages of the proceedings, and to assess the issues at hand.
The Family Consultant interviews each party separately and will interview the children, if they are old enough. The discussions held with the Family Consultant are used for the purpose of the Report. The Family Consultant also reviews the Court material filed in the proceedings including the Orders sought by the parties, the Notice of Risk, the Parenting Questionnaires and any relevant Affidavits.
The Family Consultant considers the issues of the parties and examines factors such as:
- the nature of children’s relationship with each parent
- any risks to the children (for example, family/domestic violence or abuse)
- the children’s wishes and views;
- any practical difficulty in implementing time arrangements with either parent; and
- the likely effect of any change in circumstances on the children.
If proceedings are not resolved following the making of a Child Impact Report, the Court will order a “Family Report” to be prepared. This is another independent assessment of the relevant issues in the parenting dispute and is more detailed than a Child Impact Report. The Family Report makes recommendations for the Court as to what orders are in the children’s best interests.
The Family Report writer is jointly instructed by the parties and the Independent Children’s Lawyer, if one has been appointed.
The parties jointly agree on what material the report writer is to be provided with from the Court proceedings and a detailed letter of instruction is provided. The Family Report writer will similarly meet with all relevant parties and the children. If either party has re-partnered, the Family Report writer will often interview that partner. The Family Report writer may also interview grandparents or other adults who are significantly involved with the children’s care. Some Family Report writers also contact the children’s teachers and any treating specialists the children or parents are attending upon. This is so the Family Report writer can have the best understanding of the children’s circumstances and make an informed and holistic opinion about their best interests and the future care arrangements based on all relevant material.
The Family Report involves a more thorough assessment of the parties and the capacity of each party than a Child Impact Report, but makes the same enquiries. The Family Report writer will usually opine on the following:
- the parent’s attitude towards the responsibilities of parenthood and caring for the children.
- the capacity of the parents to provide for the children’s needs. This includes not only physical needs but emotional needs; and
- the relationship of the parents and their ability to coparent and facilitate the relationship between the other parent and the children;
- Risk issues, including mental health, family violence, drug and/or alcohol misuse, and physical, emotional and/or psychological abuse.
Family Reports are required in the more complex proceedings. The report writer can be appointed internally by the Court, ordinarily a Family Consultant, if for financial reasons the parties are unable to appoint a private expert. A private expert is otherwise engaged by the parties themselves and is usually a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. These reports can take many months to be completed due to minimal resources of the Court, and private experts are often booked out many months in advance.
The conversations held with the Family Report writer are not confidential. The Family Report writer includes in the Report what they consider to be relevant to provide the Court with a greater understanding of what will be best for the children’s welfare in each matter.
Both Child Impact Reports and Family Reports are unable to be disseminated to anyone without the Court’s permission and the Court only releases copies of the Reports to each party, their lawyers and the Independent Children’s Lawyer.
To obtain specialist advice about parenting matters, please contact our expert family lawyers at Dorter Family Lawyers and Mediators on (02) 9929 8840 and we will assist you.