Family Law Library

Child Custody – The Details

Child Custody – The Details

By its very nature, separation and divorce is difficult, emotionally draining, and has a major impact on your life. However, if you have children, this emotional toll is only amplified. Your children may experience a lot of pain as you and your spouse or partner separate and they adjust to a new lifestyle of splitting their time with you and sleeping in two different homes. Because divorce is so hard for children to cope with, the Australian legislature has placed an emphasis on shared parenting, and ensuring that both parents continue to play an active role in the lives of their children after separation.

2006 Changes

The largest contributor to this concept of shared parental responsibility came in 2006 in the form of an amendment to the Family Law Act 1975. When passed, this amendment brought about the most significant change to family law in more than thirty years. The main objective of the amendment was to both support and promote the practice of shared parenting and urge parents to reach an agreement with regard to parenting arrangements on their own, without the interference of the courts.

An explanatory Memorandum that accompanied the amendment further expressed that the changes were intended to “represent a generational change in family law and aim to bring about a cultural shift in how family separation is managed: away from litigation and towards co-operative parenting.” Through this amendment Australia took a significant step towards making divorce easier on children.

Not only did the amendment express a desire for parents to reach an agreement on their own, but it also stressed the importance of both parents continuing to take an active role in the parenting of the child. The amendment expresses a desire for parents to jointly share duties and responsibilities, and also for children to be cared for and spend time with both parents.

While this article is designed to give you an in depth look at how parenting arrangements work, through litigation or otherwise, bear in mind that often the most ideal way to settle a difference is to reach an agreement without involving the court. Children benefit from having both parents involved in their lives, so the best thing you can do for your child is to reach an agreement where each parent has meaningful involvement, and refrain from having your parenting issues heard in court.

Shared Parental Responsibility

The term “parental responsibility” is defined in the Family Law Act as: “all the duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which, by law, parents have in relation to children.” This has been understood to mean that parental responsibility encompasses living arrangements, medical treatment, education, religious upbringing, protection from harm, and the responsibility to keep the child safe among other things.

You may be wondering, what exactly did the legislature mean when it expressed a preference for shared parental responsibility? Does that mean the child should spend equal time with each parent? Should each parent spend equal money on the child? Should each be allowed to make decisions about the child’s religion, schooling, and extra-curricular activities? Generally speaking, the answer is yes.

Australia’s preference for shared parental responsibility means that both parents should have involvement in the child’s life, make decisions with regard to the child’s upbringing, and contribute to the general welfare and needs of the child. The courts will not allocate or assign responsibilities unless disputes arise that the parents are unable to resolve. Furthermore, should a court order be silent with regard to parental responsibility, both parents are to retain the responsibility.

As you can see, Australia has strong preference for parents to share in the upbringing of the child, despite separation or divorce, and the courts are reluctant to make decisions regarding specific parental responsibilities. The Amendment discussed above in fact created a rebuttable presumption that it is in the best interest of the child to have both parents share equally in their responsibility, care, and upbringing.

It should not come as a surprise that very rarely do the courts take action to limit the parental responsibility of a parent, it takes extreme circumstances affecting the welfare of the child for the court to intervene and do such. Specifically, the rebuttable presumption discussed above is only abandoned where there is a threat of abuse, violence, or if allowing the parent to have control over the child is contrary to the child’s best interests.

Equal Time

Sometimes the concept of shared parental responsibility can be difficult when it comes to how much time the child spends with each parent. Equal time is often harder to organize than equal responsibility with regard to general decision-making, education, and religion. Allowing each parent to have equal time can raise logistical issues, which the court has addressed.

While there is a rebuttable presumption that equally shared parental responsibility is in the best interest of the child, there is no presumption with regard to the amount of time each parent has with the child. Before the court will issue an order allowing for equal time to be shared by the parents, it must first determine that such an arrangement is in the child’s best interest and reasonably practical.

There are advantages and disadvantages to allowing your child to spend equal time with you and your former spouse or partner. Each child is different and will respond differently to a divorce, and should you need a court order determining custody, the court will consider both the child’s interests as well as whether splitting time equally is reasonably practical. When determining whether equal time is reasonably practical the court will consider the following factors:

a)    how far apart the parents live form each other; and

b)   the parents’ current and future capacity to implement an arrangement for the child spending equal      time, or substantial and significant time, with each of the parents; and

c)    the parents’ current and future capacity to communicate with each other and resolve difficulties that might arise in implementing an arrangement of that kind; and

d)   the impact that an arrangement of that kind would have on the child; and

e)    such other matters as the court considers relevant

As you may have guessed, courts rarely grant parenting orders allowing for equal time. While the best interest of the child is paramount to the court’s decision, it also considers the practicability of the order, and more often than not equal time is not found to be reasonably practicable.

Day-to-Day Decisions

Generally speaking, the parent who has the child in their care is responsible for the day-to-day decisions – like what the child eats, wears, when the child goes to bed, and what activities the child does. These day-to-day decisions can be made unilaterally, without consulting the other parent. However, the big decisions, otherwise known as “major long-term issues” are to be decided by both parents. The Family Law Act has enumerated certain issues that fall into the major long-term category, they include but are not limited to: education, religion/cultural upbringing, health, name, and living arrangements.

What happens first?

We have discussed how Australia’s preference for shared parental responsibility and for settling matters without litigation, so you may be wondering how the process works, and what happens first? This article will discuss the non-litigious ways to reach an agreement before discussing how parenting litigation works.

Step one to reaching a parenting agreement is to participate in something called family dispute resolution (otherwise known as alternative dispute resolution). All courts require compliance with primary dispute resolution, and you must obtain a certificate from a family dispute resolution practitioner prior to filing for a parenting order. The purpose of required family dispute resolution is to encourage early and full disclosure of relevant information, and allow parties to engage in a process that not only avoids legal action but also minimises cost.

While participating in family dispute resolution, the focus of the parties is to be upon the best interest of the child, and parties should be open to negotiation, arbitration, and counselling.

Unless you can show good reason for not having followed the family dispute resolution requirement, non-compliance can result in serious cost consequences. There are only several exceptions to this requirement that excuse you from having to file a certificate from a family dispute resolution practitioner. The major exception is where the court finds that there has been or is a risk of abuse or family violence of the child. While there are several other exceptions, keep in mind that should you fail to comply with this requirement, it could cost you.

Family Relationship Centres and Family Advice Line

As part of the push to get families to reach agreements with regard to parenting issues without resorting to litigation, the government introduced both Family Relationship Centres and a Family Relationship Advice Line. Both programs are government sanctioned and designed to encourage parties to resolve disputes and enter into parenting plans.

The purpose of the Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) is to allow parents to reach workable arrangements for their children with the help of FRC staff. The staff members are not only trained with how to give advice concerning disputes, but also are trained in identifying issues of family violence and abuse. Furthermore, while the staff does not administer legal advice, it has the ability to place parties in communication with Legal Aid and private practitioners to obtain the legal advice they need.

The Family Advice Line is available from 8 am to 8 pm Monday through Friday, 10 am to 4 pm on Saturdays and can be reached at 1800 050 321. Not only is this service available to the parents, but also is available for grandparents, stepparents, children and friends.

The purpose of the Family Advice Line is to provide information about the family law system, separation, how to maintain relationships, and the impact of conflict on children among other things. This service is free, and may remain anonymous should you chose to keep your identity unknown.

Other Methods of Dispute Resolution

Mediation is another type of dispute resolution that doesn’t involve the courts. Benefits to choosing mediation are that it can be less expensive than litigation, your case can be heard sooner than it could in Family Court, and the parties have greater control over the process.

Collaborative law is another option for dispute resolution, and allows for parties and lawyers to meet in four-way meetings. This allows the parties to stay directly involved in the communication and negotiations. A major distinction with collaborative law is that the parties and lawyers agree in advance not to go to court.

Parenting Orders

After you have attended mandatory family dispute resolution and come to an agreement, you may apply to the court for a parenting order. Any person concerned with the child’s welfare may submit an application for a parenting order, however in most cases it is a parent, the child, or a grandparent who are seeking such an order.

With regard to parenting orders, the emphasis is on the best interest of the child. The court considers this to be the “paramount principle.” The primary considerations viewed by the court are allowing the child to have a meaningful relationship with both parents and also to protect the child from violence, abuse, and/or neglect. The court will also give consideration to a myriad of other factors, including the events that have occurred since separation.

After considering all relevant factors, the court can issue a parenting order that discusses parental responsibility, with whom the child will live, how much time the child spends with each parent, and how much communication the child has with each parent.

If you would like to modify a parenting order after it has been issued, you should first seek the assistance of a lawyer. Only if you are still unable to reach an agreement should you apply to the court for further help. At this point the court can order both parents to attend a parenting program, or it can consider varying the order.

Non-Compliance and Parenting Orders

You should avoid breaching a parenting order at all costs; the court takes breaches of its orders very seriously and you could even potentially face gaol time upon breach.

Australia has adopted a three-stage approach designed to both educate parents as well as impose sanctions when noncompliance occurs. Stage one addresses educating the parents about the nature and effect of parenting orders. Stage two is invoked upon the first breach of a parenting order, and requires the breaching party to attend an approved parenting course. When there are subsequent breaches, stage three permits the court to impose serious sanctions such as fines or imprisonment.

Parenting Plan

A parenting plan is a written document discussing any agreements reached between parties with regard to matters affecting their children. They differ from parenting orders in that they do not require the court’s involvement; they are simply informal agreements reached by the parties.

A parenting plan should detail responsibilities and rights of both parents and it’s aim should be to create an arrangement in the best interest of the child. A parenting plan should include a break down of time that each parent is to spend with the child, discuss where the child will spend holidays, payments for the child’s expenses, and any other aspect of the care, welfare or development of the child.

The court will refuse to grant a divorce order unless it is satisfied that proper parenting arrangements are in place, and if the parties are unable to provide a plan the court will do it for them.

While it is permissible (and usually recommended) that parents agree to a parenting plan on their own, should this not be an option in your situation then you can resort to the other methods of dispute resolution we have discussed.

It is possible to have both a valid parenting plan and a valid parenting order. Typically, this situation arises when the order discusses significant topics (such as where the child will live) while the parenting plan manages the more intricate issues (for instance, how the child should be disciplined).

A major distinction between a parenting plan and a parenting order is that a parenting plan is not enforceable; it cannot be registered by the court and parties in breach of a parenting plan are not subject to the same sanctions as parties breaching a parenting order. For further discussion addressing the differences between a parenting plan and a parenting order, please see our FAQ that tackles this issue.

Independent Children’s Lawyer

In some cases, it is necessary to appoint an independent child’s lawyer (ICL) to represent the child’s interest. Parties can request this, or the court may appoint an ICL on it’s own initiative. In determining whether this appointment is necessary the court will consider a myriad of factors, including but not limited to: allegations of child abuse, conflict between parties, issues of cultural or religious differences, sexual preferences of the parties, mental illness, and the proposed separation of siblings.

The role of the ICL is not to be the child’s legal representative, but rather to act as an “honest broker” throughout the legal proceedings. An ICL is charged with the task of forming an independent view of the evidence and to act in the best interest of the child. The presence of an ICL should minimise the trauma to the child and facilitate an agreed resolution of matters in the best interest of the child.

Any information that a child shares with an ICL is deemed to be confidential, unless the ICL considers disclosure to be in the best interest of the child.

What the Child Wants 

Undoubtedly a child will form an opinion about where they want to live and whom they want to live with throughout your separation and divorce. A frequent question that arises is whether the child’s wishes are considered when determining custody arrangements.

A child is not required to disclose their wishes, however the court is required to consider their views should they chose to express them. The court will balance the child’s view with their age and degree of maturity before determining how much credibility to give the child.

Court Proceedings

It is clear that the preference in Australia is for parties to reach agreements with regard to parenting and custody issues without involving the court. However, this is not ideal in every situation. Some separations and divorces are particularly contentious, some involve issues of violence, and other times the parties simply can’t reach an agreement using dispute resolution. Should that happen, there are certain rules in place to protect children if their parents end up litigating child related issues

The court takes on several principle roles when it comes to child related proceedings. First, during the proceedings the court is to consider both the needs of the child and impact that the proceedings may have on the child. Essentially, the court’s role is to minimise any trauma experienced by the child throughout the proceedings. The court is charged with actively directing, controlling and managing the conduct of the proceedings. Additionally the court is to conduct proceedings in a manner that will protect the child from violence or abuse, promote cooperative child-focused parenting, and reduce delays, formality, and legal technicality.

Additionally, there are certain logistical things the court can do to help protect the child. For instance, the court is required to address as many irrelevant issues as possible on one occasion, which shortens the overall proceedings and lessens the impact on the child. Also, the court may schedule hearing dates close to each other so that the child will not be impacted by lengthy times between hearing dates. The court can also limit the number of witnesses used, the technology used, and again, encourage the parties to use dispute resolution services.

Another question that often arises when parties must litigate matters concerns the evidence that may be shown. The most common types of evidence are as follows:

  • application and affidavit of the parties
  • expert affidavit
  • oral evidence (testimony)
  • testimony/reports from an independent children’s lawyer
  • family consultant’s report

While litigation is certainly an option for parties dealing with custody issues, it is clear that the preference is for parents to reach an amicable agreement by way of a parenting agreement or a parenting order achieved through dispute resolution.