Australia: How does the court use a family report?

Last Updated: 6 February 2019
Article by Nectaria Grivas

Many court cases feature a family report.

This is a document written by a professional for the purposes of helping the judge determine the best outcome of the family dispute and the best interests of the children involved.

Who Writes The Family Report?

Family reports are written by family consultants.

A family consultant is a court-appointed professional who is regarded as an expert on issues to do with families and children.

They are usually a psychologist and/or a social worker who specialises in working with families and children after separation or divorce.

They have several different roles apart from writing the family report.

A family consultant may help the parties come to an agreement, provide advice and assistance to the court and give evidence about the case during court proceedings.

They can also advise the parties on parenting plans.

If an appointment has been ordered by the court, the parties involved must see the family consultant.

The court will most commonly make an order for an initial meeting between the family consultant and the parties and then order other appointments as appropriate if a family report is to be written.

The court also has the authority to order that parties to the case attend an appointment with the family consultant after parenting orders have been made. This is to help the parties get used to the orders and comply with them.

The time and place for an appointment with a family consultant is set by the court and can only be changed in exceptional circumstances.

Any failure to attend an appointment will be reported by the family consultant to the court and may result in additional costs or delays to the court proceedings.

The family consultant is obliged to report to the welfare authorities if they reasonably suspect that:

  • The child has been abused or is at risk or being abused
  • The child has been mistreated or is at risk of being mistreated
  • The child has been exposed or subjected to, or is at risk of being exposed or subjected to, psychological harm

If a party objects to the family report and any information and recommendations in it, they may challenge the report in court by calling the family consultant as a witness.

The family consultant will need 14 days' written notice.

The party or their lawyer can then cross-examine the family consultant.

What Is In The Family Report?

The focus of the family report is the care, welfare and development of the child or children involved in the parenting dispute.

The family consultant will report on what they learn about the circumstances of the family and their dispute and the relationships between the children and each parent.

Recommendations that the family consultant believes are most suitable to the child's best interests will also be included in the report.

The family report is only one source of evidence.

The court uses the family report to determine the outcome of the case, but they are not bound by its recommendations.

Interviews With The Family Consultant

To collect the information for their report, the family consultant will conduct interviews and observation sessions over one or several days, depending on the issues and the number of people involved.

The family consultant will speak with the parents involved in the court case as well as the children.

Provided the children are old enough, they will be interviewed separately from the adults.

The family report may also include information from interviews with other significant people who are not directly involved in the case.

These could be grandparents, step-siblings, half-siblings, partners, adult siblings or other family members.

If the court gives them permission, the family consultant can seek information from other people relevant to the children and parents' lives, such as teachers or doctors.

The family consultant will gather information about:

  • The issues in dispute
  • Each party's parenting capacity
  • Current parenting arrangements
  • Previous parenting arrangements
  • Each party's views on the child's best interests
  • The child's relationships with significant people
  • The child's wishes and views
  • Any risks to the child

The family consultant will include the wishes and views of the child in the family report depending on the child's age, maturity and understanding of the situation.

Along with interviews, the family consultant may schedule observation sessions to observe the interaction between the child and their parents or other significant people.

The family consultant will use the information they have gathered to assess the situation from their professional point of view.

Concentrating on the best interests of the child, the family consultant will make recommendations that they feel are most effective and appropriate.

Who Can Read The Family Report?

The family report is not confidential.

Anything that a person says to the family consultant is admissible in court.

Only the court, the independent children's lawyer (if one has been appointed), the parties to the case and their lawyers are permitted to read the family report.

Other people, including those who have been interviewed for the report, are not allowed to read it unless the court grants them permission to do so.

It is an offence to read a family report without the permission of the court.

If a person wishes to speak to a professional about their parenting dispute confidentially, they make speak to a family counsellor or a family dispute resolution practitioner.

Communications with these professionals are confidential and cannot be used in court.

Other Reports And Assessments

The family report is an independent assessment ordered by the court.

There is no cost to either of the parties for the preparation of the report.

If a party wishes, they may provide a private assessment of their parenting dispute and family situation.

This private assessment would be paid for by the party.

In some court cases, a party may file or the court may order an expert report containing information and an evaluation that the family consultant could not provide.

An example of an expert report would be a report by a psychiatrist.

This is also usually paid for by the party.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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