Family Reports in Family Court proceedings are an important source of independent, expert insight into family dynamics and assist the Court in determining what is in the best interests of the child. Family Reports are more likely to be ordered in cases involving issues of risk to the child including allegations of abuse and family violence. They have the ability to influence parties including the independent children’s lawyer, are a powerful tool in negotiations and can assist parties in reaching an agreement.
Family report writers come in a number of forms:
Recently, family report writers have come under scrutiny after a number of media reports have surfaced that highlighted the lack of accountability and regulation of court-appointed experts. Among these, news headlines in August 2019 reported that one of Australia’s foremost family law experts had been charged with sexually abusing three children. Patrick Parkinson, Professor of the University of Queensland, noted that a conviction for child sex abuse could provide the basis for parents to challenge parenting rulings in all matters linked to the expert.
So what mechanisms are in place for the regulation of family report writers to hold them to account?
The Family Court developed the Australian Standards of Practice for Family Assessment and Reporting. This sets out minimum standards and best practice guidelines for preparing reports. Whilst a helpful guide in determining what constitutes good practice in report writing, the standards are not binding and there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance.
The recent ALRC report in March 2019 addressed this shortfall, finding there was no effective way to hold psychologists and psychiatrists in private practice to account if they failed to meet professional guidelines set by the Court.
The ALRC report made a host of recommendations to increase public and professional confidence in the family law system. The ALRC recommended the introduction of a mandatory national accreditation scheme for private family report writers. Whilst Chapter 15 Experts are excluded from the recommended accreditation scheme, the ALRC also recommended the introduction of a national training program for expert report writers. This program would result in a publicly available list of experts who have completed the training and would provide information about their areas of expertise such as family violence, child abuse, and disability.
The Family Court shared its support for the reform, with former Family Court Chief Justice John Pascoe asserting that “An accreditation scheme which allows parties to ascertain that a private report writer has acquired and maintained the required competencies and works to a high standard could greatly assist both litigants and the Court to which the report would be submitted.”
Some concerns were raised that the reforms would serve to dissuade private practitioners from preparing family reports in circumstances where there are already insufficient numbers of suitably qualified and experienced family report writers in the field. Any further reduction in available report writers could lead to further delays in the resolution of parenting matters. Whilst a relevant consideration, these concerns are arguably outweighed by the overall benefits of improving accountability, transparency and public confidence in the family law system by the implementation of an appropriate accreditation scheme for report writers, with effective enforcement mechanisms.
Please contact Sarah Bevan Family Lawyers for further information 02 9633 1088.