There are calls for change in the Australian family law system after an approved ‘expert’ was referred for investigation over allegations he prepared “grossly inaccurate” reports to be presented in evidence to support claims of child abuse and family violence.
A group of parents has accused the expert of “grossly inaccurate and incomplete” recording of interviews, “misdiagnosis”, and the application “unscientific theory” in reaching his opinions, which have carried a great deal of weight in court.
Family court expert writers are appointed to undertake interviews and provide information to the Court, as well as make recommendations regarding important matters such as contact and residence of children.
The parents in the present complaint has expressed particular concerns about the expert’s “use of particular clinical theories and his interview techniques.”
The Medical Council of New South Wales has now been tasked with investigating the complaint with a view to determining whether it is substantiated.
The Council has power to suspend the practitioner’s registration if it believes on reasonable grounds the public is at an immediate risk.
The dangers of getting it wrong
A number of the aggrieved parents got together to engage a second opinion from a Sydney psychologist, who has emphasised the dangers of ‘getting it wrong.’
“It’s questionable that someone should diagnose a personality disorder based on a few interviews only, particularly in an acrimonious situation. The difficulty is judicial or legal decisions are made on that where people may lose custody of their children when there may be very little basis for that”, the psychologist advised.
The system needs to change
The incident has put the role of ‘expert writers’ into the spotlight.
These individuals carry enormous responsibility and wield extraordinary power when it comes to influencing the outcome of family court cases.
Many believe the bar is set too low when it comes to the expertise of these people, and that accountability mechanisms in respect of the assertions they make are insufficient. They highlight the fact that inaccuracies can have a substantial and irreversible impact on families.
Family report expert writers are usually social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists.
They work either internally as employees of the Court or as external contractors. Those employed by the courts are referred to as family consultants. Family report writers do not need to have clinical experience, and while specialised training in dealing with violence and abuse allegations is encouraged in a set of guidelines, it is not compulsory.
The role of ‘expert writer’ and the weight judges place on their reports was heavily criticised during last year’s parliamentary inquiry into the Family Law system.
Several submissions to the inquiry recommended establishing a national accreditation system for expert writers, which would not only ensure a consistently high standard of reporting, but also uniformity across the various courts that deal with family law matters.
While there are Australian Standards of Practice of Family Assessments and Reporting that private report writers are encouraged to comply with, they don’t necessarily have to.
Plans for reform
There currently plans to reform the family law system, to streamline administrative issues and lower costs for litigants, as well as to reduce delays.
There is also a potential plan to amalgamate the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court (which both deal with family law matters) which could further reduce costs and confusion around expert report requirements for families.
If litigants currently wish to engage separate experts, they may need to pay large sums of money, which only adds to their financial burden and the stress involved in the process.
It’s hoped that reform will result in families being better supported with access to credible and reliable expert writers, as well as a more effective complaints process.
The families behind the current investigation feel their concerns have hitherto fallen on deaf ears, forcing them to bring the alleged conduct of the expert report writer to the attention of regulators.