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The Role Of The Single Expert Witness In Child Custody Matters – Case Note

The role of the Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer was considered in a recent child custody decision by the Family Court of Western Australia (Worrall and Bartley [2018] FCWA 132).

In accordance with an earlier order that the interim parenting arrangements (child custody) for the nine year old child (who had been the subject of litigation for eight years) be reviewed after 12 months, the Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer conducted his review and published a report.

The father sought that final parenting orders (child custody orders) be made in terms of the existing interim parenting orders or otherwise in accordance with the recommendations of the Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer ‘on the papers’, that is without cross examination of the parties and / or witnesses.

The mother objected on the grounds that:

  1. She did not consent to the making of final parenting orders as proposed by the father; and
  2. She did not accept the opinion evidence submitted by the Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer and the child’s psychologist.

His Honor held that:

  1. It would be procedurally unfair to make final orders in reliance on the Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer report without affording the mother the opportunity to challenge it in cross-examination;
  2. The simple acceptance of the recommendations of the Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer, without affording the opportunity for cross-examination, might reasonably be perceived as an abrogation by the Court of its decision-making responsibility in favour of the Expert;
  3. A Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer, no matter how experienced or qualified, is still simply that: a witness;
  4. The expertise of the Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer renders his or her opinion evidence admissible, but the opinion remains subject to an assessment by the Court as to the weight to be given by it;
  5. While expert evidence is of great assistance to the Court and informs many of the decisions which must be made, the responsibility for making those decisions is the Court’s alone;
  6. A Court hearing will afford the Court the opportunity to ask questions directly of the Single Expert Witness / Family Report Writer and child’s psychologist, if appropriate.

For these reasons, His Honour declined to determine the matter ‘on the papers’ and the matter was listed for final hearing in the Family Court with cross-examination of the experts.

The Family Court child custody case upholds the principle of ‘procedural fairness’ and the importance of parties having the right to put all witnesses, including expert witnesses, ‘to the test’.

Mathews Family Law & Mediation Specialists is an award winning best family law firm in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs recognised for its expertise in complex Family Court child custody matters.

Please contact Vanessa Mathews on vanessam@mflaw.com.au or  1300 635 529 to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss your child custody matter with one of the best family lawyers in Melbourne, accredited family law specialist, Vanessa Mathews.

Child Relocation from Sydney to Newcastle

Wilson & Wilson – [2013] FamCAFC 43

This is an appeal on parenting orders granted by the Federal Magistrate Court.  The father appealed orders by the court granting the mother permission to relocate their child from Sydney to Newcastle.  The appeal was accepted and remanded for a rehearing.

The father, aged 57 and the mother, aged 52, had one child together, born in 2001.  The parents bought a home together in Sydney in 2004 and separated in the summer of 2007.  At that time, the mother worked from home as a bookkeeper and the father worked as a contractor for a consultancy company.

Initially, the parents were able to work out parenting arrangements.  From the time they separated, the child lived with the mother and spent time with the father from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning.  When, however, the mother asked the father’s permission to relocate with the child to Newcastle, some 118 kilometers from Sydney, the father refused.  The mother turned to the court for parenting orders and permission to relocate and the father sought orders restricting the mother to the Sydney area.

The mother had several reasons for relocating.  The parents agreed to sell the family home and the mother believed she would not be able to find affordable housing in Sydney.  She also wanted to reduce her work hours in order to spend more time with the child.  Her final reason for requesting relocation was to be closer to good friends in Newcastle since she was isolated in Sydney.  She asked for shared responsibility, that the child live with her and spend every second weekend (Friday afternoon through Sunday) and half the school holidays with the father.  The father asked the court to give them share parental responsibility, that the child live with the mother within a 15 km radius of Sydney and that he have the child three out of four weekends a month for three nights.

The child in question was 11 years old at the time of the divorce, suffered from ADHD which manifested itself in difficulties in school work and making friends.  The child was close to both parents, but had a stronger relationship with his mother.  An expert witness during the initial trial in the Federal Magistrate court stated that the move to Newcastle could potentially harm the child since change was difficult for him.  The expert also said the move would impact negatively on his relationship with his father since the drive to Sydney would be tiring and the child might want to stop making the visits.  Additionally, he would be seeing his father less frequently.

While the Federal Magistrate noted these claims, she considered the mother’s reasons in the equation as well.  She held that in order to provide the child with close to the same standard of living, the mother would, at the very least, need to move to the outskirts of Sydney, further from the father, or she would have to downsize to a small apartment to stay close by.  She would also be required to work her current hours, or longer, in a place where she felt isolated.  The father, on the other hand, was not required to make any changes.  The Federal Magistrate felt that placing the mother in this situation, when she is the primary caregiver for a child with special needs, might result in the child “not receiving the level of parenting he has hitherto enjoyed from his mother”.  The Federal Magistrate ruled in favor of the mother and allowed her to move to Newcastle.

Lower Court did not Weigh Evidence Correctly

The Family Court accepted the father’s claims on appeal, taking into consideration the testimony of the expert witness.  Overall, the court found that the lower court had not given appropriate weight and consideration to the expert witness, who expressed her concerns that the move itself could be damaging to the child.  In particular, the Family Court ruled that the Federal Magistrate was mistaken when she found: (1) the child’s relationship with the father would not be negatively affected by a change in the quantity or nature of the time they spent together; (2) that a move to Newcastle would not negatively impact on the quality of time the father and child spend together; (3) the child was okay with change he was prepared for and; (4) that the best interests of the child were met by the mother having an “unencumbered property with a backyard”.  The court found that the lower court did not appropriately weigh the evidence in considering the best interests of the child.  The case was sent back to the lower court.

Emily avoids being returned to the USA

Carol and her school-aged daughter Emily moved to Australia from the United States. Emily settled into school and Carol started in a new job which was a major promotion and pay rise. Meanwhile, unbeknown to Carol, Emily’s father sought and was granted custody of Emily through a Court in the USA. The Court ordered Emily to return to live in the USA. To her surprise, Carol was also told that if she accompanied Emily to the USA it was highly likely she would be arrested and imprisoned. Emily was very upset and confided in her teacher that she was very happy in Australia and wanted to stay with her mother. A timely application to the Australian Family Court enabled Emily to stay with her mother in Australia.

[Case: Emily avoids being returned to the USA]

Claudia returned after her mother abducted her to WA

Peter and Claudia were a fantastic father and daughter team, they spent many hours discussing their favourite sports. Peter was deeply involved with Claudia’s home schooling. He lived with Claudia and her mother. One night, though, Peter returned home from shopping to discover both Claudia and her mother were gone. An urgent application was made to the Family Court of Australia and the Australian Federal Police found Claudia safe in West Australia and a few days later she was home safe and sound with her dad. Peter and Claudia continue to spend many happy hours together today.

What is reasonably practicable in Mt Isa?

The mother of a four year old child had difficulties finding employment in Mt Isa and therefore wanted to return to live in Sydney. Despite the limited employment prospects for the mother, a Federal Magistrate ordered the mother and father should have equal shared responsibility, this meant the mother would continue to live in Mt Isa. It was not until the mother took her appeal to the High Court that the importance of an order being reasonably practicable was highlighted and the court agreed with the mother that living in Mt Isa was not reasonably practicable for her and therefore not in the best interests of the child.

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Vanessa Mathews
Managing Director FDRP and Mediator
BCOMM BSW LLB

Accredited Family Law Specialist, FDRP,
Mediator and Parenting Coordinator

Vanessa Mathews is the founder and managing director of Mathews Family Law & Mediation Specialists, and has the rare combination of social work qualifications and experience, combined with nearly 20 years’ experience as a lawyer and mediator; it makes her approach to resolving legal relationship issues both sensible and sensitive.

She is a fully accredited family law specialist, mediator, family dispute resolution practitioner and parenting coordinator with a commerce degree – adding a financially astute aspect to her practice.

Vanessa has extensive experience in complex issues that arise from relationship breakdown, and works in partnership with her clients,
who regularly describe her as empathetic

Vanessa is an active member of the family law profession and
a member of the:

  •  Law Institute of Victoria, Family Law Section
  •  Law Council of Australia, Family Law Section
  •  Resolution Institute
  •  Australian Institute of Family Law Arbitrators and Mediators
  • National Mediation Accreditation System
  •  Relationships Australia Family Lawyers Panel
  • Fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers
  •  Relationships Australia / Federal Circuit Court ‘Access Resolve’ Mediation Service
  • Relationships Australia ‘Property Mediation’ Service

Vanessa and Mathews Family Law & Mediation Specialists
are regularly recognised as a ‘Leading Victorian Family
Lawyer’, ‘Recommended Family Law Mediator’ and a
‘Leading Victorian Family Law Firm’ by Doyle’s Guide to
the Australian Legal Profession.

Get Started With Vanessa

Book A Free Consult

Vanessa Mathews
Managing Director FDRP and Mediator
BCOMM BSW LLB

Accredited Family Law Specialist, FDRP,
Mediator and Parenting Coordinator

Vanessa Mathews is the founder and managing director of Mathews Family Law & Mediation Specialists, and has the rare combination of social work qualifications and experience, combined with nearly 20 years’ experience as a lawyer and mediator; it makes her approach to resolving legal relationship issues both sensible and sensitive.

She is a fully accredited family law specialist, mediator, family dispute resolution practitioner and parenting coordinator with a commerce degree – adding a financially astute aspect to her practice.

Vanessa has extensive experience in complex issues that arise from relationship breakdown, and works in partnership with her clients,
who regularly describe her as empathetic

Vanessa is an active member of the family law profession and
a member of the:

  •  Law Institute of Victoria, Family Law Section
  •  Law Council of Australia, Family Law Section
  •  Resolution Institute
  •  Australian Institute of Family Law Arbitrators and Mediators
  • National Mediation Accreditation System
  •  Relationships Australia Family Lawyers Panel
  • Fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers
  •  Relationships Australia / Federal Circuit Court ‘Access Resolve’ Mediation Service
  • Relationships Australia ‘Property Mediation’ Service

Vanessa and Mathews Family Law & Mediation Specialists
are regularly recognised as a ‘Leading Victorian Family
Lawyer’, ‘Recommended Family Law Mediator’ and a
‘Leading Victorian Family Law Firm’ by Doyle’s Guide to
the Australian Legal Profession.

Get Started With Vanessa

Book A Free Consult