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What’s good about Family Law? A Single Expert Witness perspective: Dr Stella Laletas 

Issues - Summer Edition 2023-2024

What is good about Family Law? A Single Expert Witness perspective: Dr Stella Laletas 

Family Law psychologists are called upon by the court for their knowledge, training and expertise with the aim of upholding the fundamental rights of children, particularly in complex circumstances where parents have separated.

In the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) article 12 articulates the right of children to express their views freely in legal matters that affect them; and for their voices to be heard.

However, the central question for family law professionals is: how can this be done in the face of highly complex interpersonal, psychological and situational factors, especially in families where there are allegations of family violence, mental illness, parental alienation, child maltreatment and abuse.

Sounds overwhelming? Research studies report that family law professionals, including psychologists, are adversely affected by exposure to secondary traumatic stress (Maguire & Byrne, 2017).

The stress and emotional toll experienced by family law and mental health practitioners can potentially lead to professional burnout (Schrever et al., 2022). So why do this work? What is good about Family Law?

What is good about Family Law? The Children

First and foremost, the children! There is a well-supported appreciation of the developmental vulnerabilities of children before, during and after parents separate (Kelly, 2007; Laletas & Khasin, 2021).

A Single Expert Witness appointed by the court has the opportunity to intervene, assist and support children during what could be the most difficult time in their childhoods, especially if they are exposed to ongoing parental conflict (Sorek, 2019).

We know that children need emotional security when their parents separate (Main et al., 2011). Intervention by way of a single expert report and court testimony can help the court judge to consider the individual needs of the child (ren) and the changes that maybe needed to support the child’s adjustment and developmental needs after parents separate.

The practitioners who self-select for a career in Family Law tend to be those who care about the outcomes for families and have a profound understanding of the potential negative impact this might have on children, without appropriate intervention.

What is good about Family Law? The Work

Secondly, this work is important! Typically, transition after separation is difficult for parents, families and children. The disputes are multilayered, complex, tangled, contradictory, emotional and have significant implications for families.

For example, in these complex circumstances, family lawyers and the court might ask a single witness expert, such as psychologists, to provide an opinion based on their knowledge, training and expertise in child development, attachment, mental health concerns, risk assessment and family systems.

As such, the complex nature of many family law disputes requires sophisticated and experienced practitioners. Family Law professionals routinely recognise the importance of negotiating change, transitions and family adjustment in ways that can help minimise the level of emotional distress for parents and children, even in the most challenging and complex matters.

What is good about Family Law? Helping Families

Thirdly, helping families find alternative ways to resolve disputes! Many practitioners report they selected to work in Family Law because there are opportunities to help families by supporting parents navigate complex family law processes.

Given that only a small percentage of separated families end in a law trial, most families look to family law professionals, such as psychologists, for guidance and support in finding alternative ways to resolve disputes.

For example, parents may not be aware of alternative resolution pathways such as collaborative law, mediation, arbitration, divorce coaching, and parenting apps for communication that can assist families to find resolutions and help them focus on raising their children.

Therefore, psychologists can play an important role in guiding separated parents to help them identify family dispute services that suit their situation.

Another great aspect of Family Law is that it provides the opportunity for professionals to work collaboratively and in multidisciplinary case management teams that can then assist families source the supports they need.

Due to this collaborative approach towards managing family disputes in the Family Law system, parents and families have the opportunity to be referred for multiple interventions that support pre-court family dispute resolution.

These services include: mediation before, and throughout the Family Law process; parenting coordination programs; separation courses; behavioural change therapeutic group interventions; drug or alcohol screening and/or therapeutic support such as mental health; drug and alcohol counselling.

Despite the multitude of valuable work done in this space, family law professionals, especially psychologists, attract much criticism when client’s desired outcomes are not met.

Unfortunately, community confidence in family law professionals is undermined by the perceptions and negative attitudes informed by media sensationalism and comments posted on social media platforms designed to vent resentment towards the court, judges, lawyers, independent children’s lawyers, child experts, family consultants, psychologists, psychiatrists, contact service workers and other family law professionals.

For the new, and long-standing practitioners who pride themselves in making a positive difference in children’s lives, it is important for us to remember that this is only a small percentage of all family law matters.

So why work in the Family Law sector? From a Single Expert Witness perspective, the key message is to stay the course and do this important work for children and their families. Let’s ‘fight the good fight’ together!

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