In Parenting Cases – Who should prepare the critical “Family Report”
Parents in dispute in the Family Court are usually ordered to get a family report, but not all family report writers are the same.
A Family Report provides the court with an independent assessment of the issues in the case for the judge about child/children of the relationship. It can also guide the parties to reach agreement out of the court.
There are two types of Family Reports:
(1) Family Consultants are qualified social workers or psychologists who have experience working with children and families. Parents have no input as to which consultant will be appointed to consider the issues in their case. The consultants are usually employees of the court, or external contractors. The Judge considers the report and the report writer’s recommendations are often followed.
(2) Alternatively, parties can agree to “jointly” appoint an Expert. As the appointment is by agreement, the parties can select an expert with significant experience and expertise which family consultants of the court may not have. Such an appointment must be paid for privately by the parties up front to the selected report writer. Parties can agree, that one party pay the cost of the report, to be later shared between them. Often, the parent who seeks to have an expert appointed instead of a family consultant, will need to bare the costs of the report up front. A court will be unlikely to order the other parent to contribute if they are financially unable to do so.
Whether by agreement or court appointment, both parties meet with the consultant/expert. Conversations are not confidential and anything you say to a family consultant or joint expert will likely be considered in the preparation of the Family Report. Not only do the parties to the litigation meet with the consultant/expert by also:
- The children of the relationship; and
- Member’s of the children’s household.
This often includes all people who live with the child whilst the child is spending time with the respective parent.
The report is a written report usually in 5 parts:
- Interview with one parent;
- Interview of other parent;
- Interview of third parties, including child/children;
Generally, the report writer will gather information about:
- The issues in dispute;
- Past and present parenting arrangements;
- Assess the current parenting capacity of each party;
- The child/children’s relationship with significant people;
- The child/children’s wishes and views;
- Any risks to the children.
The Family Report is only one source of evidence the Judge considers when making a decision. Recently, there has been a number of articles published referring to family consultants and expert report writers as “gods of the court” due to the seemingly great power these experts wield in family law disputes. Reports are regularly regarded as expert, independent and objective and therefore often “better” than a parent’s stated position often found not to be objective and with a bias against the other parent. The court is not bound by these recommendations and as with all evidence, such evidence can be challenged at court most often by cross examination of the expert.
The Pros and Cons
There are pros and cons of both a Private Report and one prepared by a Family Consultant. The present delays in the Family Court mean that takes up to 10 months for a report to be finalised. Comparatively, parties who elect to have a private report done, can have a report completed within 3 months. Delay might be exceptionally important in circumstances where one parent may not be having time, or minimal time with their child, establishing a status quo, until a family report is completed and a judge can assess the evidence.
Whilst a private report can be completed sooner, the cost of these reports can be limiting. Reports completed by private psychiatrists can cost up to $10,000, psychologists may cost between $2,000 and $5,000; a court appointed Family Consultant is free to the parties.
Nature of Issues and Expertise
The issues of the matter, more importantly whether there are complex mental health issues. As parties can choose who completes an expert report, if there are complex and unique issues surrounding mental health, a report prepared by an expert rather than a family consultant is preferable;
Duration and Process
The Duration and process of the respective choices. A family consultant usually spends 2 hours with each parent on the same day, as well as any relevant third parties. Time with the child is variable dependant on factors such as age and maturity. It is conducted at the court and is in the form of a “shuttle”, one parent/third party at a time.
In comparison, an expert report is conducted at the offices of the expert. Time spent with each parent can vary depending on any matters the expert may wish to discuss further and the parents can decide when they attend and what time.
The Child’s experience
Consideration of the child’s experience of meeting with a report writer. Family consultants meet with the interviewees at the court building in a child friendly setting. Private experts will have their own offices which may be a more comfortable experience for young children and with more flexible hours at which to attend.
Important Disclaimer: The content of this publication is general in nature and for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.