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It has been recently reported that a group of parents in New South Wales have launched a challenge against a family report writer, alleging his practices “place the public at risk”.
The report writer in question has been accused of a string of failures including “grossly inaccurate and incomplete” recording of interviews, “misdiagnosis”, and that he “applies unscientific theory”, particularly in response to allegations of child abuse and family violence.He has now been referred to the Medical Council of NSW which has the power to suspend a practitioner’s registration if it is believed that the public is at an immediate risk.
The above report gives rise to the question of how much power family report writers have in the family law system and the impact on families, and particularly children, if they ‘get it wrong’.
Judges use the family report process as a means of obtaining independent evidence in relation to the best interests of children.Reports are prepared by ‘experts’ who are either employed directly by the Courts as family consultants, or engaged privately by litigants.Generally, report writers and either psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers.
A good family lawyer will be familiar with most experts relied upon in parenting matters in their region and will have an informed view of whether they are ‘good’ report writers or not.Lawyers should be hesitant to use report writers who lack experience in family law matters.
It is fair to say (in my view) that a family report is, more often than not, determinative of the outcome of a parenting matter.A large majority of parenting disputes will resolve by consent following a family report, based on the recommendations made.Does that make report writers ‘gods’?Or an independent guiding hand?
It is not impossible to persuade the Court that the recommendations of the report writer should not be followed.Experienced and competent Counsel are well equipped to discredit the findings of independent experts under cross-examination.However, all of that requires a trial before a Judge which is an expensive and time consuming process.It is also relevant to note that interim orders may have already been made based on the report recommendations and therefore a status quo may have already been established by the time a trial is reached, making a change to the parenting arrangements more difficult to sustain.
What is the solution to all of that?It has been proposed that report writers should be regulated, both in terms of being qualified to perform the role of an independent expert and the fees that they charge for performing that role.I support such regulation.In the meantime, I suggest that both litigants and practitioners need to be careful and apply the relevant scrutiny when appointing independent experts.
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