If you are involved in a parenting dispute in the Family Law Courts, chances are you will need to participate in a court ordered Family Report process. The Court has power under the Family Law Act to commission experts to prepare reports, to be used in evidence in assisting the Court to determine what is in the best interests of the child/ren.
Family Reports are prepared by experienced social workers or psychologists and will involve all parties to the proceedings and child/ren meeting with the report writer for interviews and observation sessions. Typically the preparation of a Family Report is ordered by the Court; although in some cases it might be appropriate for the parties (via their legal representatives) to jointly commission a Family Report prior to court proceedings being commenced. You might be asked to pay for half of the costs of a privately commissioned report.
A report writer may be an independent professional in private practice or employed directly by the Court. Either way, a report writer is considered to be an expert witness and must prepare the Family Report having regard to the relevant Court Rules pertaining to expert witnesses. If a parenting matter progresses to a final hearing, the Family Report (together with any updating or addendum reports prepared throughout the proceedings) will be admitted into evidence for consideration by the Judge. The report writer will almost always be required to appear in person at the final hearing so that the parties have an opportunity to cross examine the report writer on their views and opinions, outlined in the report.
At the end of the day the Family Report is evidence that will be considered in conjunction with all other evidence before the Court when making a determination. However, it is fair to say that oftentimes a lot of weight will be attributed by the Court to the evidence (opinions) of a report writer due to their expert and impartial status in the proceedings. It is therefore important that you are prepared for what happens in the interviews with a report writer.
Remember, all parenting matters before the Court are decided with the best interests of the child/ren being the paramount consideration. The Act sets out for us that the best interests of the child/ren are determined by a number of factors but primarily the considerations of the benefit to the child/ren of having a meaningful relationship with both parents and the need to protect the child/ren from physical or psychological harm from being subjected to, or exposed to, abuse, neglect or family violence. In applying these considerations the Court is to give greater weight to the need to protect the child/ren from harm.
A Family Report will include summaries of interviews with the parties to the proceedings and also of any interviews with the children, including where they have voluntarily expressed their views. In most cases the Family Report will conclude by setting out various recommendations for short-term and long-term parenting arrangements that support the primary considerations set out in the Act, as being determinative of what is in a child’s best interest.
So, it is important to put your best foot forward in any interviews with a report writer. Be honest and be yourself. You should voice your concerns clearly and reasonably but always be respectful of the other parties to the proceedings. The Family Report interviews are not intended to be an opportunity to engage in a ‘mud-slinging match’. Participate in the process that is happening not in the process that you think should happen. Listen to the questions and answer honestly and thoughtfully. Remain focussed on the child/ren. After all, it is all about them.