In family law matters, you may have heard of the term, “family report,” but what is it and in what circumstances do they apply. In this podcast, Gary Mallett, our family lawyer at OMB Solicitors discusses the topic.
Dan: What is a family report?
Gary: A Family Report provides the Judge with an independent assessment of relevant issues in parenting disputes before the Court and assists the Judge to make decisions that are in a child’s best interests.
The primary focus in family law parenting proceedings is the child’s best interest.
Family reports will usually contain recommendations for the child’s future care, welfare and development and generally include suggested parenting arrangements as to whom the child should live with, and how and in what manner the child should spend time with the other parent.
These recommendations are made after the Family Consultant has interviewed all the parties concerned with the dispute over the child’s care, and others who are significantly involved or concerned with the child, including the children themselves, siblings, and often grandparents and the new partners of the parents.
The report may also provide important insights into the views of the children, relationship dynamics and family attachments of the children involved in the dispute. The report will identify areas of concern such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse and neglect. The Report will then make recommendations that endeavour to protect the child form these risk factors.
Dan: When will a family report be ordered?
Gary: A family report will often be ordered if the Judge believes it will help the Judge with the process of determining what is in a particular child’s best interests.
The Judge may order a family report on its own initiative, or after a party to the proceedings makes an application.
Dan: Who writes the family report?
The family report will be written by a family consultant, who will be either a psychologist or a qualified social worker. Family consultants are recognised by the Family Court as expert witnesses in children’s matters, and therefore only psychologists or social workers with the appropriate skills and extensive experience working with children and families are appointed.
Dan: What does a family report contain?
Gary: The Judge may ask the family consultant to create a report focusing on whatever matters the Judge directs.
When a Family Report is ordered by the Judge, the Judge is able to set out in detail the particular issues that need to be covered by the Family Report. There might be an older child and both parties are telling the Judge that the child wants to live with them. The Judge might then order that the report consider the child’s views.
However, in doing so it must be made clear to the child that the child does not have to express a view if they don’t want to, and the questioning of the child is not an interrogation.
A family report may include information on a wide range of issues, including:
- A child’s wishes and views;
- The nature of the child’s relationship with each parent and other significant adults;
- The likely effect that any change in circumstances may have on the child;
- The practical difficulty of the child spending time with either parent;
- Any risks to the child (as identified previously, family violence or abuse etc); and
- an overall history of the family and the personal histories of the parties and other significant people.
The report will also assess the parenting capacity of each party, considering:
- The capacity of each parent, and other significant adults, to provide for the child’s needs (including their intellectual and emotional needs);
- The attitude each parent demonstrates towards the child and the varied responsibilities of parenthood; and
- The willingness and ability of each parent to encourage and facilitate a continuing relationship between the other parent and the child.
Dan: How are family reports prepared?
Gary: A family report is compiled from information from a variety of sources, including interviews with the parties, affidavits and other reports filed in the case, and documents that have been produced to the Court under subpoena (e.g. criminal histories, medical reports, school reports etc).
After the report has been ordered, the family consultant will arrange appointments for interviews. The family consultant conducts individual interviews with all parties that the Consultant believes should be interviewed, which is generally all the parties and children involved in the case, including others with a strong connection to the child.
The child will be interviewed separately from the adults, thereby assisting the family consultant to ascertain the child’s views away from the potential influence of the child’s parents. The Family Consultant will also make observations of the interactions between the child and their parents and other significant people.
Interviews are usually conducted at the family consultant’s premises, and in most circumstances, they will take a full day.
Information provided to a family consultant is not confidential, and all relevant information will be included in the family report which will be filed in the Court and read by the Judge.
Dan: How should I prepare for the interviews?
Gary: Spruce yourself up for the interview, and wear something decent, as if you were going to Court, Church or a nice restaurant. The Family Consultant will take notice of and report on your appearance and demeanour.
Generally, you will be able to bring a friend for reassurance and emotional support, but you should think twice about bringing a friend who may argue with or intimidate the other party. Parties sitting in the waiting room are often being observed directly or indirectly by the Family Consultant, and observations of interactions, arguments or intimidation may end up in the Family Report.
Before the Interview it is important to read through your Affidavit material and any other Affidavit material that has been filed in your proceedings and make a note of any concerns that you have in the material. You can take notes into the Family Report Interviews if it assists your memory, however what you say in the interviews must be your real thoughts and feelings.
Try to relax during the Family Report Interview. You may feel that your life and your actions are under the spotlight, however the role of the Family Consultant is to help the Court make decisions in the child’s best interests, so focus on what arrangements you want for your child or children; and why you believe that those arrangements are best for your child or children.
Having said that, because the Judge will be focused on what is in the child’s best interests, proposals that simply suit you or the other parent, and suggestions of what you or the other parent believe you are entitled to, take a back seat if they are not in the child’s best interests.
You need to remember that because the Interviews are not private or confidential, anything that you show to the Family Consultant (for example photos or videos) and anything you discuss with the Family Consultant may end up in the Family Report and shown to the other party.
Under no circumstances should you coach children about what to say before a Family Report Interview or at any stage in Family Report Interviews.
If the Family Consultant considers that the children have been coached, that will be noted in the Family Report. When the Judge reads about the Family Consultant’s concern of coaching, whatever the children have said (even if it is really what they feel) may be doubted by the Judge and will certainly be contested by the other parent.
Do not, under any circumstances coach, put down or denigrate the other parent or party. You can express your concerns about the other parent’s parenting abilities or use of drugs etc, without denigrating them. Always remember to remain child focused and show that you are willing to foster the child’s meaningful relationship with the other parent, with the appropriate safeguards against risk factors in place if necessary.
Dan: Who pays for the family report?
Gary: The typical costs of a family report are between $3,000 to $4,000.
Family Reports are usually paid for by the parties to the proceedings equally. However, when one party has no money and the other party has a much higher income, the parent with the higher income may be ordered to pay. Where both parties have no money and only a small income, the Court may agree to fund the cost of the Family Report.
Never assume that the Court will fund a Family Report. The Court does not have the money to continuously pay for such Reports.
There are benefits of privately funding the costs of a Family Report. In such circumstances the parties can select and agree on the Family Consultant, and the Report is normally made available much quicker.
Dan: Who sees the family report?
Gary: The Court will release copies of the family report to each party involved in the case (or their lawyers), and to the Independent Children’s Lawyer. Only those persons may read and retain a copy of the report. Even if other people were interviewed for the report, they cannot see the Report without the Court’s permission.
Section 121 of the Family Law Act 1975 makes it an offence to publish or distribute to the public, any part of a family law proceeding that identifies one or more of the parties, witnesses or other persons. This would include showing the family report to other people.
The Family Report may contain recommendations to the Judge about parental responsibility, who the child should live with and how and when the child should spend time with the other parent. The Report may recommend that one or both of the parties attend counselling, a PPP Parenting Course, a Parenting Orders Program or other such courses.
The recommendations will reflect what the family consultant believes is in the child’s best interests, in particular, their care, welfare and development needs.
Family reports are often highly relevant pieces of evidence and very valuable to the Judge in making parenting orders. However, they are only one piece of evidence the court may consider, and the family consultant’s recommendations should not replace the court’s role in the family law process.
Judges can accept or reject the family consultant’s recommendations. The Judge will be aware that Family consultants do not usually have the opportunity to view all the available evidence, and their recommendations may be based on incorrect facts or assumptions.
If one of the parties wishes to contest or object to any of the facts, assumptions or recommendations, then they must call the Family Consultant as a witness for cross-examination at the trial.
Dan: Where do people go for further information?
Gary: There is more information and fact sheets on Family Reports and the role of Family Consultants on the Family Court’s website. There are also further useful family law articles and podcasts on our website about parenting matters and other Family Court proceedings.
Please do not hesitate to contact us for a consultation should you still have any further questions on the Family Report process, or if you require any assistance with parenting issues or proceedings that are currently before the Court..