Family Reports can be ordered by the Court to assist it in making any decision about children (s62G, FLA). The report will usually cover the children’s relationship with each parent and any new partner, what is being offered by each parent in both material and emotional terms and any wishes the children express about which parent they would prefer to live with.
A family report will only be ordered after attempts at reaching a conciliated agreement with the assistance of the Family Consultants and registrars have failed. Usually, the Court has given a date for the final hearing of the matter. In many cases the evidence of each parent is sufficient to put the options and difficulties before the Court. In more difficult cases an independent assessment of the family relationships and problems is required. Family reports are often used to investigate the wishes of the children where the children have apparently been saying contradictory things to each parent or they have been reluctant to say anything at all about their preferences.
The family report will be prepared by a Family Consultant who will not have had any previous contact with the parties, and is not permitted to discuss the case with any other Consultant who has already seen the parents or the children.
A family report is not binding on a Court. After listening to all the evidence and each parent in the witness box, the judge may reach a view opposite to that of the Consultant. A family report is only one piece of evidence. It is, however, a very important piece of evidence. Courts rely on the expertise of the Family Consultants who deal with problems of separated families on a daily basis. If the report favours one parent, it can be very difficult for the other parent to persuade the Court to come to a different conclusion. The Family Consultant can be called to court by either parent’s lawyer and be asked to explain the report just like any other witness.
Instead of ordering a family report, a Court may order a report from an outside expert. Reports on the children prepared by psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers are only accepted by the Court if the Court has ordered the expert to prepare a report or has given special leave to a parent to submit another report which would require the child to see another specialist (s102A, FLA). Often, the Independent Children’s Lawyer will ask the Court to appoint an expert psychologist or psychiatrist to examine the child and present a report to the Court rather than present a family report (s68M, FLA).