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Lib Senator Sarah Henderson backs reform to secrecy provisions of Family Court psychologists

Type of protection : Granting release

 

Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: Kym SmithLiberal Senator Sarah Henderson at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: Kym Smith

A FEDERAL LIBERAL MP, WHO LED A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE INQUIRY, HAS CALLED FOR CHANGES TO SECRECY PROVISIONS THAT PREVENT ANY SCRUTINY OF FAMILY COURT PSYCHOLOGISTS.THE CALL BY LIBERAL SENATOR SARAH HENDERSON COMES AFTER THE AUSTRALIAN REVEALED THAT STRICT SECRECY LAWS WERE PREVENTING ANY EXAMINATION OF THE WORK OF PSYCHOLOGISTS IN THE FAMILY LAW SYSTEM, INCLUDING ONE CHARGED WITH CHILD ABUSE, ANOTHER FOUND GUILTY OF MISCONDUCT AND A THIRD WHO THINKS THAT 90 PER CENT OF ABUSE ALLEGATIONS ARE MADE UP.

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SENATOR HENDERSON SAID SECTION 121 OF THE FAMILY LAW ACT, WHICH PREVENTS THE NAMING OF ANY WITNESSES INVOLVED IN FAMILY LAW PROCEEDINGS, INCLUDING EXPERT WITNESSES, SHOULD BE REFORMED TO IMPROVE TRANSPARENCY.

“THE PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO KNOW WHEN A FAMILY CONSULTANT OR OTHER EXPERT WITNESS IS SUBJECT TO OR FOUND GUILTY OF PROFESSIONAL MISCONDUCT OR DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDINGS AS WELL, OF COURSE, OF CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS,” SHE SAID.

“A FAMILY REPORT WHICH GETS ITS WRONG CAN HAVE DEVASTATING CONSEQUENCES INCLUDING FOR CHILD SAFETY. SECTION 121 OF THE FAMILY LAW ACT SHOULD BE AMENDED.”

PSYCHOLOGISTS, PSYCHIATRISTS AND SOCIAL WORKERS PLAY A KEY ROLE IN THE FAMILY LAW SYSTEM — PROVIDING EXPERT ADVICE TO THE COURTS ON WHAT PARENTING ARRANGEMENTS ARE IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF CHILDREN AND HELPING TO ASSESS ABUSE ALLEG­ATIONS.

WHILE SOME ARE EMPLOYED BY THE COURTS, MANY ARE PRIVATE PRACTITIONERS CHARGING TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS FOR REPORTS.

SENATOR HENDERSON SAID SHE BELIEVED PRIVATE PSYCHOLOGISTS AND OTHER EXPERTS SHOULD NO LONGER BE INVOLVED IN WRITING REPORTS FOR THE COURTS.

“IN OUR INQUIRY, THE EVIDENCE OVERWHELMINGLY SUPPORTED THE ABOLITION OF PRIVATE FAMILY REPORT WRITERS,” SHE SAID.

“AS MANY ATTESTED, SOME PRIVATE FAMILY CONSULTANTS CHARGE EXORBITANT FEES AND PRODUCE SUB-STANDARD, FACTUALLY INCORRECT OR BIASED REPORTS ... WE NEED TO SEE MUCH HIGHER PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS, GREATER ACCOUNTABILITY AND AN END TO THE FEE GOUGING.”

PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE BEEN DESCRIBED BY SOME LITIGANTS AS THE “GODS” OF THE SYSTEM BECAUSE THEIR OPINIONS OFTEN CARRY SIGNIFICANT WEIGHT IN CUSTODY BATTLES. MANY CASES SETTLE AFTER A COURT-APPOINTED EXPERT PROVIDES A REPORT STRONGLY IN FAVOUR OF A PARTICULAR PARENT.

BUT S121 OF THE FAMILY LAW ACT PREVENTS MEDIA ORGANISATIONS AND RESEARCHERS IDENTIFYING PSYCHOLOGISTS OR SCRUTINISING THEIR WORK. THE SECTION IS AIMED AT PROTECTING THE IDENTITY OF FAMILIES INVOLVED IN LITIGATION, AS WELL AS WITNESSES SUCH AS THEIR NEIGHBOURS AND FRIENDS.

HOWEVER, IT IS DRAFTED SO BROADLY IT ALSO PREVENTS THE NAMING OF EXPERT WITNESSES.

THEY ARE REFERRED TO IN MOST JUDGMENTS WITH A PSEUDONYM SUCH AS “DR X”, WHICH PREVENTS JOURNALISTS AND RESEARCHERS FROM EXAMINING CASES TO SEE WHETHER CERTAIN EXPERTS ­APPEAR TO BE BIASED.

UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND LAW DEAN PATRICK PARKINSON SAID ALTHOUGH­ S121 HAD A VALID PURPOSE OF PROTECTING FAMILIES, THERE WAS “NO REASON” TO PREVENT THE IDENTIFICATION OF PROFESSIONAL WITNESSES.

HE SAID IT MADE IT “ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE” FOR JOURNALISTS, ACADEMICS AND RESEARCHERS TO SCRUTINISE THE ROLE OF EXPERTS.

“THAT AFFECTS TRUST IF WE CANNOT REALLY KNOW WHAT THE PATTERNS ARE,” HE SAID.

IN 2015, PROMINENT SYDNEY PSYCHOLOGIST CHRIS RICKARD-BELL DECLARED IN AN ABC INTERVIEW THAT 90 PER CENT OF CHILD ABUSE ALLE­G­ATIONS WERE MADE UP — CONTRARY TO INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH SUGGESTING SUCH ALLEGATIONS WERE FABRICATED ONLY IN A MINORITY OF CASES.

DR RICKARD-BELL REVEALED HE HAD ACTED AS A COURT-APPOINTED EXPERT­ IN MANY HUNDREDS OF FAMILY LAW CASES.

HOWEVER, THE AUSTRALIAN WAS UNABLE TO NAME DR RICKARD­-BELL IN CONNECTION WITH PARTICULAR CASES IN WHICH LITIGANTS HAD RAISED CONCERNS. IT WAS ALSO UNABLE TO SEARCH COURT JUDGMENTS TO EXAMINE HIS PATTERN OF TESTIMONY IN OTHER CASES.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, THE ABC ALSO REVEALED THAT A PROMINENT PSYCH­OLOGIST HAD BEEN CHARGED WITH HISTORIC CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE. THE PSYCH­OLOGIST IS UNDERSTOOD TO HAVE ACTED AS AN EXPERT IN AT LEAST ONE OR TWO CASES.

MEDIA ORGANISATIONS ALSO CANNOT­ IDENTIFY A PERTH PSYCHOLOGIST FOUND GUILTY OF PROFESSIONAL MISCONDUCT THIS MONTH.

YET ANOTHE­R INVOLVED IN NUMEROUS FAMILY LAW CASES WAS CAUTIONED BY THE MEDICAL WATCHDOG FOR BREACHING PRIVACY BUT CANNOT BE NAMED.

THE AUSTRALIAN LAW REFORM COMMISSION HAS RECOMMENDED AN ACCREDITATION SYSTEM FOR FAMILY REPORT WRITERS, REVEALING THAT CONCERNS HAD “BEEN RAISED REGARDING THE QUALITY AND INTEGRITY OF REPORTS, PARTICULARLY THOSE PROD­UCED BY PRIVATE PROFESSIONALS”.

IT IS UP TO JUDGES TO DECIDE WHETHER TO ACCEPT OR REJECT THE TESTIMONY OF EXPERT WITNESSES. HOWEVER, RESEARCH SUGGESTS THAT JUDGES FOLLOW EXPERT RECOMMENDATIONS IN ABOUT 90 PER CENT OF CASES, AND THAT AN ESTIMATED 70 TO 90 PER CENT OF CASES SETTLE AFTER LEARNING THE EXPERT’S OPINION.

CLOUD OF SECRECY OVER FAMILY COURT

FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SECRECY PROVISIONS ARE PREVENTING ANY SCRUTINY OF THE WORK OF FAMILY COURT PSYCHOLOGISTS, INCLUDING ONE CHARGED WITH CHILD ABUSE AND ANOTHER FOUND GUILTY OF MISCONDUCT.

ANALYSIS OF THE WORK OF A THIRD PSYCHOLOGIST, WHO THINKS THAT 90 PER CENT OF ABUSE ALLEGATIONS ARE MADE UP, IS ALSO IMPOSSIBLE BECAUS­E OF THE STRICT SECRECY LAWS.

PSYCHOLOGISTS, PSYCHIATRISTS AND SOCIAL WORKERS PLAY A KEY ROLE IN THE FAMILY LAW SYSTEM — PROVIDING EXPERT ADVICE TO THE COURTS ON WHAT PARENTING ARRANGEMENTS ARE IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF CHILDREN AND HELPING TO ASSESS ABUSE ALLEG­ATIONS. WHILE SOME ARE EMPLOYED BY THE COURTS, MANY ARE PRIVATE PRACTITIONERS CHARGING TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS FOR REPORTS.

THEY HAVE BEEN DESCRIBED BY SOME LITIGANTS AS THE “GODS” OF THE SYSTEM BECAUSE THEIR OPINIONS OFTEN CARRY SIGNIFICANT WEIGHT IN CUSTODY BATTLES. MANY CASES SETTLE AFTER A COURT-APPOINTED EXPERT PROVIDES A REPORT STRONGLY IN FAVOUR OF A PARTICULAR PARENT.

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