So, you’re in Court and the Judge orders a Family Report to explore what is in your child’s best interests – what now?
Well, it’s always a good idea to be prepared.
Knowing what you can expect for your family report appointments will help you to focus on presenting at your best, rather than your energy being depleted by stressing about the unknown.
What is a Family Report?
A Family Report is a written assessment of a family’s dynamics by a professional person, usually an accredited social worker or psychologist. It can be done if you are in the middle of court proceedings, but it doesn’t have to. A lot of separating parents consider having an assessment done in advance of negotiating longer term parenting arrangements for their children.
Assuming you’re in Court though, this report will be written up by a Family Consultant (employed or funded by the Court) or a privately funded Psychologist or Psychiatrist (if the Judge decides that you have the means to fund one privately) who will conduct the assessment independently as the Court Expert.
In most parenting cases, this might be the only source of independent evidence the Court has to turn to when making a decision about your final parenting arrangements – so it’s important that you know what to expect and feel prepared going into the interviews.
What to expect
Until recently, Family Report interviews occurred in person – whether they were at the Court, at a private professional’s offices or at your home. COVID-19 has changed the way that Courts are conducting Family Report interviews. In most registries across Australia, interviews are now being conducted by telephone, or occasionally by video link. This means that it is more important than ever to be prepared and know what and how you can communicate with the Family Consultant.
The Family Consultant may interview:
- You and the person you are in dispute with, separately or together;
- Your child alone;
- Your child with you, or with the person you are in a dispute with;
- Your child with other significant people (such as your partner, grandparents or friends); or
- Other relevant professionals such as teachers, counsellors or doctors.
Your interview may be for 20-30 minutes if it is a short-form report (i.e. a Child Inclusive/Dispute Conference Memorandum; a short, summary version of a Family Report made under Section 11F of the Family Law Act 1975) or 1 – 1.5 hours if for a full Family Report (i.e. made under Section 62G of the Family Law Act 1975).
The style of questions in short-form report interviews will often involve more ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers rather than being opened-ended due to time restraints. You may then need to wait for observations with your child, so you might want to consider taking the whole day off work so you can stay “in the zone” for as long as you need to.
It is important to remember that all information gathered by the Family Consultant during these interviews is not confidential, and is admissible as evidence before the Court.
The purpose of the interview is to:
- Understand and explore the issues in dispute between you as well as what is agreed;
- Identify any risk of harm to your child;
- Assess the adult relationships as well as your child’s relationships with you, your former partner and anyone else significant in their lives;
- Determine your child’s views, if they are at an age or level of maturity where it is appropriate to do so;
- Make recommendations about what arrangements might be in your child’s best interests.
The report may be released days or weeks after the interviews and is often released by the Judge that your matter is before, along with some Orders reminding you about your obligations not to disseminate the report or publish it.
Hopefully, it is released with enough time before the next Court date that it allows time to consider negotiating with your former partner (including through lawyers) about your ongoing parenting arrangements.
How to prepare for a Family Report interview
I think the best way you can be prepared to go into Family Report interviews is to have a thorough understanding of what the issues in dispute are in your situation. This is because evidence is only admissible in Court if it is relevant to an issue in dispute in your case – so you can be guaranteed that it is going to be what your Family Report, including the interviews, focus on.
It is also really important to know what you want. It sounds simple, but being able to tell the Family Report writer what Orders you want the Judge to make is imperative to the Family Report writer and the Judge determining what the relevant issues in dispute are.
Getting legal advice to help you to identify what these issues are, and what your position should be, may be a good idea if you haven’t already engaged a lawyer.
The report writer may collect information about:
- Your child’s relationship with significant people such as their parents, brothers and sisters, extended family and friends;
- Your child’s views, if they want to tell the Family Report writer;
- Your child’s personal history and emotional attachments;
- Your child’s family history, including any significant issues that have impacted on them;
- What is currently happening in your child’s life;
- Your attitude towards your parental responsibilities, and to the other parent;
- Any other important aspects of your child’s life that will help the court make a decision.
What to consider before attending your Family Report interviews
How would you describe your co-parenting relationship?
- What is good about it? What is your role in constructively communicating with your former partner?
- What needs work? What is to blame for the level of conflict? What is your role in this?
- What could you improve on, and are you taking any steps towards that? For example, using a communication app or attending a post-separation parenting course.
What is your proposal for short-term and long-term parenting arrangements for your child?
This includes the detail and logistics of those arrangements, like:
- Are special occasions treated differently to the usual arrangement?
- How will changeovers work?
- Are any therapeutic interventions required?
Why do you say that your proposal is in the best interests of your child?
- How does it ensure that your child will have a meaningful relationship with their other parent?
- Is your child protected from any risk of unacceptable harm?
- What is the effect of the proposed arrangements on your child?
- How is your child coping with the current arrangements, and how do you think they are likely to cope with any change in the arrangements?
- What is your level of acceptance of your child’s wishes; are these views in accordance with what is in your child’s best interests?
What not to say to a Family Report writer
It is really important to be aware of what not to say to a family report writer because this could hinder your case.
Here are some examples of what not to say to a Family Report Writer. Do not:
- Make threats or be aggressive. This can be seen as intimidating and may negatively impact their assessment of your family.
- Lie or exaggerate the truth. It is important to be honest and upfront about your family situation, as the family report writer will likely uncover the truth anyway.
- Badmouth your ex-partner or other family members because it could make you look bitter and may damage your credibility.
- Try to discuss the case with the family report writer outside of scheduled meetings. It is important to follow the proper channels of communication and not try to influence the report writer outside of their official duties.
- Refuse to cooperate with the family report writer or refuse to provide requested information. This can be seen as uncooperative and may negatively impact the assessment of your family situation.
We hope that this article has provided some information to you about the Family Report process. Getting legal advice should always be a top priority when you are separating – no matter how amicable or acrimonious the split.
This article is of a general nature and FYI only because it doesn’t take into account your personal situation, objectives or needs. That means it shouldn’t be considered legal advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. You should seek family law advice from an Australian Family Lawyer for a tailored, independent assessment of your individual circumstances.