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.