Improving the competency and accountability of family report writers
Appropriately skilled family report writers are one of the essential elements of a properly functioning family law system and critical to the administration of justice for families before the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Division 1 and Division 2) (the Courts). Family reports are a critical component of evidence in family law matters and are highly influential in informing parenting arrangements following separation.1 Judicial officers, parties and Independent Children’s Lawyers (ICLs) are entitled to place significant weight on the observations and views expressed in family reports throughout the litigation process.
The Law Council also notes the use of family reports in negotiation between parties, both in formal mediation and informal settlement processes. In this regard, there can be significant reliance on family reports to inform settlement discussions and attempts to finalise matters outside of judicial determination, particularly in matters where ICLs are engaged.
It is therefore essential that family reports are prepared by highly skilled and appropriately qualified practitioners and the Law Council supports measures to achieve and maintain a high standard of engagement around and in the preparation of quality family reports and the competency of family report writers.
However, issues relating to competency and accountability of family report writers cannot be addressed in a vacuum. Rather, the issues raised in the Consultation Paper must be considered within the context of the broader family law system and rules of evidence applicable to litigation.
While the Law Council acknowledges there is some variation in the quality of reports and relevant expertise from certain family report writers within the current framework, there is clearly insufficient funding of in-house services and Regulation 7 family consultants2 to meet the current demand. This funding shortage is central to the creation of many of the perceived problems with the output of some family report writers and has reduced the number of experts prepared to undertake this work.
As previously submitted to the Australian Law Reform Commission, 3 the Law Council considers that problems with the quality of some family reports are caused by:
- a significant shortage in the number of psychologists, psychiatrists and other qualified social scientists who are prepared to do this work;
- a diminution in funding, over time, of the Court’s in-house family consultants service (and consequent pressures upon recruitment and retention of highly experienced practitioners); and
- a diminution in funding, over time, for Regulation 7 family consultants (with the same impacts).
1 Rachael Field, Samantha Jeffries, Zoe Rathus and Angelia Lynch, ‘Family reports and family violence in Australian family law proceedings: What do we know?’ Good Evidence, Safe Outcomes in Parenting Matters Involving Family Violence: Analysing Current Family Report Writing Practice (June 2016)
2 Private practitioners who hold a statutory appointment from the Chief Executive Officer(s) of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia under regulation 7 of the Family Law Regulations 1984.