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The Judicial Officer (“JO”) may raise whether it would be beneficial for the parties to attend a Case Assessment Conference (“CAC”) during the early stages of a parenting dispute in these circumstances where parties often find it difficult to see eye-to-eye on specific issues or understand the position that the other party maintains, particularly when issues of risk are raised.
To determine the appropriateness of programming a CAC, the JO may turn to one of the Court Officers attending the initial hearing – the Family Consultant. The Family Consultant will typically be seated in the witness box on the right-hand side of the Court (from the parties’ perspective). Family Consultants are not lawyers, rather they will have a psychology and/or social work background and are well trained both in the Court’s processes and in resolving disputes involving children.
If it is deemed appropriate, a CAC will be set down to take place ordinarily 4 – 6 weeks after the initial hearing. This can be a longer period depending on the Court lists.
The CAC is quite a different environment from the courtroom setting that parties may be expecting. Firstly, it takes place in a conference room and secondly, there will be no JO present. The CAC will be convened by a Family Consultant, generally with the Applicant first and then separately with the Respondent. If an Independent Children’s Lawyer (“ICL”) has been appointed by the Court, they will also attend the CAC with each of the parties and the Family Consultant.
Initially, the Family Consultant will explain the process to each of the parties during their additional sessions. Importantly what is discussed during each of the individual sessions is not confidential and will go onto the court record in the form of a report.
During each parties’ respective individual session, the Family Consultant (and ICL if appointed) will ask the party for their perspective on the background of the relationship, how separation came about and questions addressing the various issues and risk factors that have been raised by the parties in their documents filed with the Family Court.
After each party has had their individual session and if appropriate in the opinion of the Family Consultant, a joint session with both parties may take place. The joint session will allow the Family Consultant to address some of the issues and potential for the parties to agree to some consent orders which can then be filed and made by the JO in due course.
Once the CAC has concluded the Family Consultant will compile what has been discussed and prepare a report, which will be provided to the JO, each of the parties and placed on the court file. The report will not repeat word-for-word what was discussed but provides an in-depth summary. After the report will be a list of recommendations for the parties to consider. The parties must give due consideration to these recommendations and should they be unsure what steps to take, they should seek legal advice.
Following the publication of the report, the matter will typically be brought back before the JO for a Directions Hearing. This procedural hearing will allow the parties to inform the JO (and each other) of what steps they have taken since the CAC and that will help determine what the next step will be in the matter.”