By Nicola Berkovic, Legal Affairs Correspondence, The Australian

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

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 professional misconduct or other disciplinary 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 them 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.

Media companies united this week to campaign against a ­culture of government secrecy — including among politicians, the public service and the courts.

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”.

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.

University of Queensland law dean Patrick Parkinson. Picture: James Croucher
University of Queensland law dean Patrick Parkinson. Picture: James Croucher

But section 121 of the Family Law Act prevents media organisations and researchers identifying psychologists or scrutinising their work because it prevents the naming of Family Court witnesses. Section 121 is aimed at protecting the identity of families involved in litigation, as well as witnesses such as their neighbours and friends.

However, the section is drafted so broadly it also prevents the naming of expert witnesses.

The Family Court and lower-level Federal Circuit Court refer to them in most judgments with a pseudonym such as “Dr X”.

This prevents journalists and researchers from examining cases to see whether certain experts ­appear to be biased.

Media companies united this week to campaign against a ­culture of government secrecy — including among politicians, the public service and the court

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  • admin says:

    Problems arise when courts stipulate only one family report writer may be involved and that person is closely associated with courts, and known to Legal Aid and the Independent children’s lawyers (ICLs) to deliver the findings required to favour the mother and child being together to the exclusion of the father.
    Senator Henderson is right that these “experts” should be named, but not that the selection of experts should be limited to one only, without providing an opportunity for another opinion as to what is best for the child[ren] and the parents. It has been shown on many occasions that family report writers do not always get it right and many of their decisions are crippled by their inability to remove their own biases from the considerations.
    Often times we hear complaints that answers to questions and the framing of questions are distorted to produce a required response. This could be easily overcome by ensuring all interviews with parents and particularly children are videotaped and these tapes should be made available to both parties.

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