Separation and divorce are unfortunate and significant life events that many people go through.

For people separating while there is the obvious grief, anger and pain over the loss of a relationship, these feelings are often compounded by fear of an uncertain future, financial concerns and child custody issues.

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Accredited Specialist Family Lawyers Gold Coast and Coolangatta

Hooper Family Lawyers is making a sea change…of sorts…we’re staying in the Brisbane Bayside (we love it here) however we now also have a branch office on Griffith Street, Coolangatta.

We will be offering specialised Family Law advice to the Gold Coast and Northern NSW regions including:

  • Family law advice;
  • Consent orders;
  • Parenting Plans and child custody matters;
  • Mediation;
  • Property settlement;
  • Spousal maintenance;
  • Domestic Violence protection;
  • All other aspects of de facto and family law legal and Court representation.

Our office in Coolangatta is situated within walking distance to the Magistrates Court at Coolangatta, and we will be providing representation in the Federal Circuit Courts at Lismore and Southport, as well as representation in the Brisbane Family and Federal Circuit Courts.

For us this is an exciting opportunity to grow our firm, forge new relationships, and provide our expert family law services on the Gold Coast and Northern NSW.

Our mediation services via “Decide Mediation” will also be available from the Gold Coast office, and we are available to travel for mediation from Brisbane to Coolangatta and Northern NSW.

Regardless of whether you wish to see us in Brisbane or on the Gold Coast, we look forward to helping you resolve your family and de facto law issues in a timely and cost effective manner. Please contact our Coolangatta office on 1800 891 878 for an appointment with an Accredited Family Law Specialist. If you would like more information about us, please visit our website at https://www.hooperfamilylawyers.com.au/

The family report has significant weight in parenting proceedings and to assist with parenting arrangements post separation. It is often very helpful to have a family report prepared prior to mediation or family dispute resolution to assist separated parents. It is important to understand what the report entails, who writes it, and how it affects custody arrangements. 

Who writes it?

The court appoints a specialist family report writer to write the family report. The family report writer is an independent expert and can be appointed privately by the parties or as Court appointed “family consultant”. Strictly speaking the report writer has the status of being a Court Expert (Federal Circuit Court Rules) or Single Expert witness (Family Court Rules). This means the family report writer is not a witness for either party and may be cross examined by either party. The specialist normally has a background in psychology and/or social work.

How is the report written?

Once the court appoints the report writer or consultant they begin the interview and observation process. They will interview both parents and people close to the family and often observe the children in an informal interview, observe transition between adults, and see how they interact with the adults. The children have the option to speak with the family report writer or consultant but can choose not to.

What factors are considered?

In a custody matters, the aim is to ensure the best interests of children are met. Interviews with family members assist to determine issues in the custody matter that need to be addressed and provide recommendations as to the best interests of the children:

  • The nature of the existing parenting arrangements and important relationships in the lives of the children (parental and other)
  • Examination of allegations of unacceptable risk of harm (physical, psychological or sexual)
  • The responsibility parents have shown towards obligations as parents
  • The parent’s capacity to care for their children
  • The views of the children in the case

To keep in mind

It is important to make sure you attend the interview process. Failing to attend may cause delay, potentially cause costs against you, or that the family report is admitted into evidence without your input. Your divorce lawyer should provide you with date, time and other necessary information in advance. 

The report is only one piece of evidence in the case but the judge usually places a fair degree of weight on the opinion of the independent expert. The report writer or consultant makes recommendations about custody and access to children but the court isn’t obliged to follow them. If there’s an argument about the report, there’s an opportunity to cross-examine the consultant and the family members they interviewed.

Lastly, there’s no such a thing as off the record in a meeting with the report writer or consultant. They’re obliged to write a thorough report. Anything they’re told either goes in writing or sent to the court.

Family Consultant FAQs

What is a family report?

In 2006 the Howard Government made changes to the Family Law Act 1975. This made Family Dispute Resolution (generally mediation) compulsory in most parenting matters. An Accredited Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner conducts the mediations. They have the authority to issue a certificate related to section 60I of the Act.

The Certificate (or final report) is like a piece of evidence for the Court. It includes whether the parties both attended mediation and made a genuine attempt to mediate or whether the Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner determined mediation is inappropriate.

Child focused or child inclusive mediation are two mediation models made to help parents work out a suitable parenting arrangement after their separation. Below is basic information on these models, the mediation process and recording of agreements.

What’s child focused and child inclusive mediation?

Child focused mediation seeks to encourage the parties to look beyond their disputes and consider how the agreements benefit the children. Often the mediator will educate the parents to better understand how the dispute and separation negatively impacts their children, both in the long and short term. Hopefully this information will help the parents to look beyond their positions, personal
wants and needs and encourage them to focus on the children.

The child inclusive mediation takes this a step further by arranging for the children to have an interview with a qualified child consultant. They speak with the children in a separate session, and will relay the children’s thoughts and feelings to the mediator and the parents. The child consultant carefully considers what information to report; their priority is the child’s welfare in the separation.

Child focused mediation resulted in greater fulfilment with the mediation process and longer lasting agreements. Child inclusive mediation, though, provided even better results than child focused mediation in these areas. (McIntosh, Wells et al, 2008:46McIntosh 2007:4)

Screening process

In this initial process, each parent meets with the Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner mediator. They screen for factors that may make mediation inappropriate. These factors include family violence, substance abuse, mental health and other imbalances affecting a party’s ability to participate in mediation.

On occasion the Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner will need to “balance power”. It’s not unheard of for both sides to try and “tip” the balance in mediations to their advantage. Therefore, the screening is vital to determine the needs of the parties and if mediation is a realistic route to take.

Facilitative mediation

The Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner’s role is to assist the parties to determine the outcome for the dispute themselves. It isn’t the role of the Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner mediator to advise or influence a party.

Generally, the Family Dispute Resolution process will require these steps:

  1. Mediator opens the proceedings and explains the rules;
  2. Receive opening statements from the parties. Both sides should speak uninterrupted;
  3. The mediator acknowledges and identifies common ground; An agenda is set in terms of the topics that need discussing;
  4. Both sides engage to explore the topics in the agenda;
  5. The mediator identifies options and obstacles;
  6. The mediator holds confidential private sessions with each party to discuss the viability of the options covered in the meetings;
  7. Negotiation between the parties;
  8. If an agreement is reached, it’s put on record.

Parenting Plans

Parenting Plans are methods of recording the agreements. These are written, signed and dated. These plans aren’t enforceable in a Court. But if the matter makes it that far, the Parenting Plan is evidence that an agreement exists, and is usually persuasive with the Court’s final decision.

The emotional stress of divorce is felt through any family, especially to the youngest and most sensitive members. The children. The child inclusive mediation method was developed in response to research about the effect parental conflict during separation has on children. The primary goal of this method, according to Professor Lawrie Moloney, is to re-establish and maintain a secure emotional base for children post separation (Moloney 2012:3)

What’s the child inclusive mediation method?

Dr Jennifer McIntosh, a clinical child psychologist, describes some of the fundamental elements of the CI process as follows (McIntosh 2007:5):

  • The session with the children must be supportive and appropriate as to the dispute and separation
  • Decision making shouldn’t be a burden the children carry
  • A therapeutic element is needed to help children with coping, providing information and validating their experiences
  • Assisting parents to hear and reflect upon the children’s experiences to better understand the children’s needs

Child inclusive mediation “ups the ante” by directly involving the children. This way the parents truly understand how their child feels and what they want. Expert advice is still considered in the proceedings as they’d meet with the children to gauge their state of mind during the separation.

The ultimate goal of any mediation involving young people is to reduce conflict and to prohibit agendas or “tactics” one parent may use over another to gain primary custody.

Does this method work?

In a 2006 study, 79% of the combined child-inclusive and child-focused mediation participants reported flattening out of their conflict. Other statistics from the study showed:

  • 82% of CI cases felt this method had improved the way their dispute was handled
  • 61% of children reported better outcomes for the family

In mediation, a clichéd image is the mother having primary custody awarded to her. However, there is an interesting result from the 2006 study. There was less acrimony, greater fulfilment with resolutions and a stronger sense of agreement among fathers in the year after the mediation (McIntosh and Long 2006:122). Fathers also had a greater perception of fairness from the child inclusive process (McIntosh and Long 2006:124)

For mothers there was a greater sense of preservation in the bond with their children. The benefits for the children included a perceived “closeness” with their father’s. They also reported being happier with agreements 1 year after the mediation (McIntosh and Long 2006:122).

It’s that time of year again and things can become a little tense as holiday, Christmas Day and New Year plans for separated families are negotiated or implemented.

Separation is never easy; and special occasions like Christmas can often be very difficult, highlighting the reality of the changed living arrangements post separation. This can be the case for parents who have “custody of children” as well as for the parents who have arrangements traditionally thought of as “access”, “contact” or “spends time and communicates”.

The important thing to remember in any post separation parenting situation is negotiations occur “in the shadow of the law”.

This means both disputing parents ought to consider how the law might apply to their circumstances when they are engaging in negotiations.

The law empowers judges to exercise “discretion” to make parenting orders, and the process by which this occurs is complex.

However, two very important propositions bear heavily in the mind of a judge being called upon to make a parenting order. These are:

  1. Children have rights; while parents have responsibilities;
  2. Parenting arrangements ought to be in the best interests of the children.

From a practical perspective the best thing for both parents to do is remain “child focused”. This means try to consider what arrangements will place the best interests of the children, ahead of their own interests or feelings.

In my experience as a Brisbane Family Lawyer, some of the things that may be relevant for you to think about, or ask yourself, in making parenting arrangements at Christmas:

  • Making Christmas time a happy childhood memory. One of the most important issues for children’s mental health is to not be exposed to disputes between their parents. Studies have shown witnessing family violence generates similar response in children as having violence directed towards them; and some writers argue “exposing a child to domestic violence is a form of abuse in itself, regardless of whether the child is the target of such violence or not.”
  • Would the children be excited to see both of their parents, grandparents and other people who are important to them on Christmas Day? Is splitting Christmas Day in half what the children would likely prefer? Or would they be happier not to travel on Christmas Day; instead spending Christmas with one parent one year, and with the other the next;
  • If one parent has issues affecting the children’s safety, such as drug or alcohol problems, is there someone trusted who might supervise the time?
  • Will you let them take some of the gifts to the other parents home? Sometimes an item can represent a connection to the home they are not in;
  • Can they give a gift to the other parent?
  • Have you made planned holiday activities and outings, and taken time off work etc.

These are adult issues and it’s not a good idea to question your children directly as to what they want. Hopefully you know your children well enough to have an instinctive knowledge of what parenting arrangements they would prefer.

One of the most child focused post separation steps you can take for your children is to be “business like” in your dealings with the other parent, even in difficult circumstances, or when Court proceedings have commenced.

If you are dealing with a difficult or litigious ex-partner in a parenting matter, conducting yourself in a manner consistent with the above will be important evidence that you are child focused.

Judges make Orders they think will promote children’s rights and best interests. In my experience it is usually very obvious to the Judge whether one party (or both) is not behaving in a child focused way. If it’s not obvious immediately, it will usually become obvious as the litigation proceeds.

If you need the assistance of the Court to spend time with your children at Christmas, remember this is traditionally a busy period, and it is a good idea to get advice as earlier in the year. Rule 5.01A Family Law Rules 2004 provides the application must be filed before 4.00 pm on the second Friday in November of the application year if it relates to Parenting Orders during the Christmas School holiday period.

Ref: Flood and Fergus 2008 referred to in Morgan A and Chadwick H (2009) “Key Issues in Domestic Violence” Australian Institute in Criminology, Summary Paper No 7, at 8.

 

Since the 2006 Howard Government amendments to the Family Law Act 1975 the idea of equal time or shared care has gained greater prominence. This has occurred as a result of introducing two sections, the effect of which places the concept of equal time or shared care, at the forefront of the Judge’s reasoning.

In addition to these amendments, inaccurate media reporting has in my view contributed to a higher awareness among litigants as to the availability of equal time and shared care, and more application or consent orders for equal time or shared care.

Family Law Act 1975 – 2006 Amendments
There are two sections that primarily serve to promote the idea of equal time and shared care. They are:

1. Section 61DA – this section introduced a rebuttable presumption that equal shared parental responsibility is in the best interests of a child.

Parental responsibility is the responsibility for making long term decisions for a child, not “equal time” or “shared care”.
This may be open ended but the Family Law Act 1975 definition in section 4 provides some examples of these decisions, including education, health, religion and culture, name and location of the child’s residence that would make it significantly more difficult for a parent to spend time.

As stated above, the presumption is rebuttable (by evidence that equal shared parental responsibility is not in the best interests of a child); and won’t apply where there are reasonable grounds to believe a parent (or person living with a parent) has engaged in abuse or family violence.

Where the presumption does apply, a further section is relevant to the question of equal time or shared care. This section is:

2. Section 65DAA – this section provides for a 3 tiered pathway to be considered by the judge in making a parenting order. The steps are:

a. To consider an order for equal time; and if not reasonably practicable or in the best interests of a child;
b. To consider an order for substantial and significant time; and if not reasonably practicable or in the best interests of a child;
c. To consider what order is in the best interests of a child.

Thus the first consideration is for equal time or shared care but consideration to make this order is subject to it being in the child’s best interests (Section 60CC(2) and (3) contains the best interest factors); and for it to be reasonably practicable for such an arrangement to occur.

The requirement for “reasonably practicability” is important and covers both what is physically practicable and emotionally practicable for a child.

Prior to the above amendments there was little in the way of guidance from the court with respect to equal time or shared care because for many people co-parenting in an equal time or shared care arrangement it had been arrived at by agreement (and thus no judicial determination was warranted).

An example however of a decision prior to the amendments which I consider offers comprehensive guidance on the best interests and reasonably practicability of equal time and shared care is Federal Magistrate Ryan (at the time) in T and N [2001] FMCAfam 222. In this decision Her Honour set out the indicia of factors to be examined by a court where a person seeks equal time or shared care as follows:

  • The parties’ capacity to communicate on matters relevant to the child’s welfare.
  • The physical proximity of the two households. Are the homes sufficiently proximate that the child can maintain their friendships in both homes?
  • The prior history of caring for the child. Have the parties demonstrated that they can implement a 50-50 living arrangement without undermining the child’s adjustment?
  • Whether the parties agree or disagree on matters relevant to the child’s day to day life. For example, methods of discipline, attitudes to homework, health and dental care, diet and sleeping pattern.
  • Where they disagree on these matters the likelihood that they would be able to reach a reasonable compromise.
  •  Do they share similar ambitions for the child? For example, religious adherence, cultural identity and extra-curricular activities.
  • Can they address on a continuing basis the practical considerations that arise when a child lives in 2 homes? If the child leaves necessary school work or equipment at the other home will the parents readily rectify the problem?
  •  Whether or not the parties respect the other party as a parent.
  • The child’s wishes and the factors that influence those wishes.
  • Where siblings live.

My view is if you’re considering seeking equal time or shared care, regard should be given to the above in formulating your proposal. Every case is different however and advice from a Brisbane Family Lawyer will assist you to determine what your best case is.

Family law advice

If you have any queries in relation to separation, divorce, de facto relationships, property settlement or child support payments, my firm Hooper Family Lawyers can assist you with practical advice. We are Brisbane Family Lawyers servicing all areas.

In the period leading up to Christmas our office routinely receives enquiries from people about “child custody”, “custody rights”, “family law custody” or “child custody laws”.

While these terms haven’t been used in the family law context since 1995[i], and given we are almost 20 years down the track; they’ve remained in the minds of some people presented with parenting issues.

There’s been a change in terminology in family law due to a shift in the context in which the court examines a parenting dispute.-In approaching the exercise of making a parenting order, the court comes from a perspective that while children have rights; parents have responsibilities.

Terms that suggest ownership or right such as “child custody rights” i.e. my right to child custody, are not relevant to the modern Family Court. Further, parents who think in these terms may be inadvertently doing a disservice to the presentation of their case.

So how should I approach Family Law child custody? And what if I don’t want to go to Court?

Whether or not you want, or need, to go to Court the best outcomes for your children (and most likely for you) will be achieved by “child-focused thinking”.

This means framing your proposal for the separated co-parenting arrangements according to the following types of considerations:

  • Is the proposal “businesslike”? Have you been able to put aside your animosity towards the ex partner when considering the proposal?
  • Has the proposal been considered in terms of what is practical for the children?
  • Is the proposal likely to be enjoyable for them?
  • Does the proposal make concessions as to what benefits they receive in the other household?
  • What are your motivations in making the proposal? i.e. are you looking to advance the children best interests?

Some of the rights children have are to enjoy spending time regularly with both parents, (consistent with what is necessary to keep them safe from harm), have meaningful relationships with both parents and extended family, receive adequate and proper parenting etc.

In my experience not many parents consulting a Brisbane family lawyer would disagree children should not have these rights or that children are “property” such as is suggested by thinking in terms of custody laws.

What about this Christmas – I don’t have parenting orders or a parenting agreement in place?

Some ex partners are difficult (believe me I know).

The best you can do is control what you’re doing. This is an area of law where two wrongs don’t make a right.

Remember you need to be child focused; and you should act “responsibly” for your children. Here are some tips for Christmas holidays negotiations:

  • Try and use email for your communications. While face to face may be best to repair a relationship, not so here. Remember your email may end up annexed to an affidavit so behave in a businesslike and child focused manner when communicating your proposal;
  • As part of being child focused think about your proposal. Cover the above points.
  • Avoid being reactive. He or she may say something stupid, insulting, threatening or abusive. Don’t react – you have it in writing;
  • During the festive season don’t drink text or email. At Christmas many people have a few drinks and emotions are running high with separation and absent children at a family time of year. Again, the focus needs to be the children and not your own pain. Things will work out long terms if you stay calm;
  • Look after yourself. Don’t overdo it and set those resolutions in place for the New Year. I often say to my clients “it’s a marathon not a sprint” which is particularly relevant when dealing with a difficult ex partner.

I hope anyone taking the time to read this has found it helpful and informative. Have a merry Christmas in 2014; and a Happy New Year in 2015.

Peter Hooper – Hooper Family Lawyers


 

[i] The Family Law Reform Act 1995 (Cth) replaced part VII of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (“FLA”) and changed the terminology when dealing with children’s matters from “guardianship”, “custody” and “access” to “specific issues”, “residence” and “contact”.

The Family Law Act 1975 has most recently been amended by the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006 (Cth) which commenced operation on 1 July 2006. This amending Act changes the terms “residence” and “contact” to become “living with”, “spending time” and “communicating with”.

See Peter Hooper’s latest case note on the decision of MALDERA & ORBEL [2014] Fam CAFC 135; which defines the role of the objects and principles of the Family Law Act when deciding a parenting matter.

https://www.hooperfamilylawyers.com.au/resources/case-watch-list/

Peter Hooper accredited family law specialist is a Brisbane Family Lawyer and Director of Hooper Family Lawyers, a family law firm in Brisbane practicing exclusively in Family and Relationship Law.

Separating from a spouse or partner can be a traumatic event and very emotional time.

Legal Practitioners working in this area of law often work in a high pressure environment, having to take immediate steps relating to care of children, home occupancy and assets, whilst taking instructions from clients who are often in a fair bit of emotional pain.

Quite often the pain is extended with the other side continuing to supply untruths relating to their situation.

Combining legal skills with our investigative strength often provides practitioners and their clients with a significant advantage over adversaries.

Generally, investigation will often ensure that you have a wealth of evidence to support your clients application.

Discovering information or evidence through investigation will often induce the other party to settle on your client’s terms, not their terms.

How often do Practitioners suspect that statements made by the other side are untruthful, but do not have the ability to disprove them. In some cases, their own clients can assist with this process, as well as general discovery. A key feature of Investigation however, is that it allows you as Practitioners to test the veracity of the other side’s contentions throughout the proceedings, undermining the other sides confidence and credibility at every opportunity.

Over the last 17 years we have assisted many practitioners with;

  • The enforcement & execution of orders, service of documents with supporting Affidavits, removal of or collection and or protection of property and your client’s security and safety;
  • Preparation of evidence of criminal offences, including stalking, violent and threatening conduct and engaging law enforcement;
  • Confirmation of the occurrence of separation, reconciliation or other significant events;
  • Identifying, locating and/or verifying property interests;
  • Substantiating negative contributions, including wasted expenditure; (i.e. Mistresses & gambling)
  • Identifying and verifying undisclosed income levels or potential for earning capacity;
  • Exposing fraud, shams, misrepresentations or non-disclosure, relevant to the outcome of proceedings; (e.g. non-payment of child support)
  • Discovering extramarital relationships and linking negative consequences;
  • Substantiating inappropriate behaviour by a parent or other caregivers;
  • Investigating child at risk issues;
  • Supervising contact or handovers.
  • Obtaining evidence substantiating a breach of orders or undertakings.
  • Conducting interviews, drafting statements or affidavits;
  • Proving or disproving de facto relationships;
  • Assisting in the execution of orders, including:
    • Anton Pillar Orders;
    • Recovery Orders.

Clients usually have a wealth of information about the other side, and any investigation should commence with an analysis of this information.
It can often be dangerous however to allow clients to carry out investigations on their own behalf, such investigations often exposing them to breaches of various legislation and courts later adopting an adverse opinion of them.

The benefit of using a competent investigator is that it will allow you to present the truth, whilst protecting your clients,

Michael Featherstone www.phoenixglobal.com.au