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COVID-19: The impacts of Coronavirus on family law and parenting

April 28th, 2020

Co-parenting can be difficult at the best of times.  The additional uncertainty and significant changes in response to the global pandemic will see parents face new challenges.

The message from the courts is that where possible parents should continue to comply with existing court orders.  It is not clear at this stage, what the courts will consider a reasonable excuse for not complying with a parenting order in the context of the pandemic.  Parents are being encouraged by the courts to use their common sense and to act reasonably as new challenges present as a result of the pandemic.  Communication will be crucial as parents navigate through the temporary restrictions in place, particularly in relation to travel and quarantine.

If orders cannot be complied with, or parents seek to change arrangements during the pandemic, parents should, in the first instance, try to reach an agreement in writing with the other parent about what is to occur, including consideration of makeup time if time is not proceeding in accordance with orders.  Parents are being reminded by the courts that they should always prioritise the best interests of the children, their health, safety and wellbeing.

If you are in a situation where you believe that you are unable to comply with court orders and the other parent does not agree, and the issue cannot be resolved between you, you should seek legal advice.

Parents should attempt to work through issues reasonably and sensibly to prevent any more distress during this time.  They should keep each other informed about any health issues or concerns as they arise.  If issues arise that cannot be resolved, they may be able to be negotiated through lawyers or through alternative dispute resolution services, such as mediation which continue to be offered remotely.

Travel restrictions

The latest direction from the Queensland Chief Health Officer permits persons to cross the border for the following purposes:

  • to continue existing arrangements (such as parenting plan arrangements) for children under 18 years to have contract with their parents and siblings who they do not live in the same household with (but contact with vulnerable groups, such as persons over 70 years, is not permitted);
  • to provide care or support to an immediate family member; and
  • to attend any court of Australia or to comply with court orders (including parenting orders).

The courts and the government are continually reviewing and updating travel restrictions, so it is always best to obtain advice on the current arrangements that apply to your situation.

Our lawyers are continuing to advise clients on all family law matters.  Please do not hesitate to contact us on 07 4036 9700 if you have any questions or concerns regarding your family law matter during this difficult time.

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Drug Testing in Family Law Matters

October 15th, 2019

Drug and alcohol use is a rising social issue both in Australia and worldwide.  The National Drug Strategy Household Survey[1], conducted in 2016, produced the following alarming statistics:

  1. 1 million Australians, aged 14 years and older, had used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey, which equates to roughly 16 per cent of the population at the time;
  2. 1 in 5 Australians who reported meth/amphetamine use, also reported using the drug at least weekly;
  3. 4 out of 10 Australians either smoked daily, drank alcohol in risky quantities or used an illicit drug in the 12 months prior to the survey;
  4. 10 per cent of drinkers drove while under the influence of alcohol in 2016;
  5. 1 in 20 had misused pharmaceuticals in the 12 months prior to the survey; and
  6. 1 in 10 Australians aged 14 years and older had been a victim of an illicit drug-related incident in the previous 12 months.

These statistics will shock many.  As a family lawyer it is not uncommon for parents to raise concerns regarding the other parent’s use of illicit substances, alcohol intake or dependence on pharmaceuticals.

In parenting disputes, the paramount consideration is “what is in the child’s best interests”.  In determining what is in the child’s best interests, there are two primary considerations:

  1. “the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both of the child’s parents; and
  2. “the need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm, from being subjected to, or exposed to abuse, neglect or family violence.”

Substance use is directly relevant to the court’s responsibility to protect a child from harm.  Substance use will typically have a significant impact on the parenting orders that a court will make.

Where allegations are raised, it is common for the parent who is the subject of the allegation to undergo drug testing.  If the parent wishes to defend the allegation, they may submit to drug testing willingly.  If the parent does agree to undertake drug testing, then the court has the power to require that parent to undergo testing.

When making orders for drug testing, the court must consider, among other things, the type of testing, the frequency and process for requesting a test, the timeframe in which a test is to be undertaken, chain of custody issues, the process for obtaining a sample and the consequences of a negative test result.  As a result, the drafting of drug testing orders has become very technical.

The different types of drug tests

When an allegation of illicit substance use, misuse of prescription medication or pharmaceuticals or alcohol dependency is raised, consideration needs to be given as to what type of testing is appropriate and will most likely capture use.  Different tests will be more suitable depending on the frequency, duration, quantity and timing of usage.

The most common types of testing include the following:

  1. Urine analysis: which can detect prescription and illegal drugs as well as alcohol. This testing, is limited in that it can usually only detect use a few days prior to the test and the accuracy of detection depends on the individual being tested and level of usage;
  2. CDT testing: (for alcohol) which can detect high alcohol usage for a period of up to two weeks. The reliability of detection will vary depending on the individual and the quantity and frequency of use during the detection period;
  3. EtG testing: is a type of hair follicle testing which can test alcohol use for up to three months; and
  4. Hair follicle testing: which can detect a variety of illegal and prescription drug use for up to three to six months depending on the length of the hair sample.

Which test, or combination of tests is appropriate, will depend on the alleged substance used, the timing of the use and the pattern of consumption.

If you require assistance with your family law parenting matter, or have concerns regarding your children or the other parent that you wish to discuss, please do not hesitate to contact one of our Cairns and Mareeba family lawyers today on 07 4036 9700.

[1] https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/behaviours-risk-factors/illicit-use-of-drugs/overview

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Should You Formalise The Parenting Arrangements For Your Children?

September 5th, 2019

Formalising the parenting arrangements for children after separation has many benefits for both the parents and children.  A formalised agreement provides a predictable and stable routine, reduces the chances of conflict, and reduces stress and the likelihood of the other parent acting contrary to the agreed arrangement.

There is no one better placed to make decisions about what parenting arrangements are in the “best interests” of children, than their parents.  However, an experienced family law practitioner can provide very useful, and sometimes critical advice, to assist parents to agree on, and formalise, all necessary parenting issues for their children.

Issues we commonly advise separated parents about include:

  1. the various parenting arrangements parents might consider such as week-about, a shared week arrangement, and alternate weekend routines, including arrangements for special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s and Father’s Day;
  2. how to “make legal” the agreed parenting arrangement to reduce the risk of the other parent absconding with, or holding over the children, or making threats to do so;
  3. whether to enter into a parenting order – which is legally binding, or a parenting plan – which is not legally binding, but which has other benefits, including flexibility;
  4. how to ensure the parenting arrangements still maintain a degree of flexibility where needed. This can be critical where one parent works on a fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) arrangement, does shift-work, or lives in another city;
  5. other parenting issues such as domestic and international travel with the children, passport arrangements, choice of schools and medical providers;
  6. concerns relating to who will care for the children when they spend time with the other parent;
  7. what to do when a child is refusing to spend time with the other parent;
  8. how parents can keep in touch with their children when they are living with the other parent;
  9. concerns regarding alcohol, illicit substances and family or domestic violence; and
  10. how to communicate with the other parent regarding a parenting issue about which they do not agree.

The feedback we commonly get from our clients is that formalising the parenting arrangements:

  1. reduces stress for the children by providing a stable routine;
  2. reduces anxiety and conflict for the parents by removing the need to communicate on a weekly basis with the other parent about what time the children will spend with each of them;
  3. enables parents to plan their time with their children, including holidays and special occasions such as birthday and Christmas celebrations;
  4. reduces their level of fear that the other parent may abscond with their child, refuse to return their child or otherwise act contrary to the formal parenting arrangements; and
  5. reduces their level of fear that the other parent may make a court application seeking for the children to live with them or to move away.

It is strongly recommended that, in the initial stages of a separation, parents obtain legal advice from experienced family law practitioners about:

  1. the law surrounding parenting issues and arrangements under the Family Law Act 1975(Cth) as relevant to the particular family;
  2. the various parenting options, arrangements and issues they should consider;
  3. whether a parenting arrangement should be formalised through a parenting plan or court orders;
  4. the services available (some of which are free), to assist parents to discuss and agree on parenting arrangements; and
  5. how they can make the agreed parenting arrangements “legal”.

At Miller Harris Lawyers, our experienced Cairns and Mareeba family lawyers are available to provide you with advice on general parenting matters and the application of the Family Law Act 1975 to your family situation, and specific parenting issues, to assist you to amicably resolve the arrangements for your children.

If you would like more information about how we can assist you to amicably resolve the parenting arrangements for your children, please feel free to contact our Cairns and Mareeba Family Lawyers on 4036 9700.

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When do children get to decide which parent they will live with?

July 4th, 2019

One common misconception that parents often have following separation is that their child will get to decide who they live with and how much time they spend with the other parent.

The living arrangements for children after separation is a decision to be made by both parents, not the children.  If parents cannot agree to the living arrangements for their children, they are required to attempt mediation to see if they can agree with the assistance of an independent third party.  If there is still not agreement after mediation, then ultimately either parent may need to commence court proceedings asking the court to decide on the arrangements for the children.

The next obvious question is—If children do not get to decide who they will live with, do they get a say in the decision at all?  The answer to this question will depend on the circumstances of the particular family.

For example, we are commonly now seeing that parents who agree to attend a mediation to discuss and try to reach an agreement on the arrangements for their children are adopting one of the two following practices to ensure their children also have a voice in the decision:

  1. Attend a child inclusive mediation.

Unlike the suggestion of the name, the children do not actually attend at the mediation with their parents.  Whilst mediations are run differently by different mediators, generally the mediator will spend time with the children prior to the mediation.  The mediator is trained to create a comfortable and safe environment for the children to share their views on the issues to be discussed at mediation.  Those views can then be brought into the mediation through the mediator.

  1. Obtain a family report prior to mediation

A family report is written by a family report writer, who is usually a social worker or psychologist.  The purpose of the report is to provide recommendations on what parenting arrangements are in the best interests of the children.  In making recommendations, the report writer gathers information through interviewing both parents and significant others, the children (if they are old enough) or observing the children with their parents (if they are not old enough to be interviewed).

A family report is often ordered by a court in parenting proceedings to assist the court in gathering evidence as to what arrangements are in the best interests of the children.  Increasingly however, parents are choosing to obtain a family report privately to assist them in making decisions for their children outside of the court process.

A family report is another way in which children can have their views heard by both parents and is an asset in a mediation. However, ultimately it is the parents or court who have the final say in the children’s care arrangements.

It should be noted that how much weight is given to the views of children will depend on the individual circumstances of the case, and in particular, the age of the children and their maturity.  Whilst children do not get to decide their own care arrangements, the more mature and older they are, the more weight that will usually be given to their views.

The recent High Court decision of Bondelmonte confirms that even children who are mature and approaching the age of 18 are not able to decide their care arrangements.  In that case, the children who were 15 and 17 at the time, were ordered by the court to live with their mother, despite both children expressing that they wanted to live with their father.

If you are going through a separation and would like to discuss your parenting matter, contact one of our family lawyers today on 4036 9700 to find out about our fixed fee initial consultations offered in both our Mareeba and Cairns offices.

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What happens when separated parents cannot agree upon which school their child will attend?

February 5th, 2019

After parents have separated, it is not uncommon for many issues in relation to their children to come into dispute.  These issues may have previously been agreed upon prior to separation.  One issue that we see often in family law is the choice of school which your child will attend.  When this issue comes into dispute it can cause a significant deterioration in the relationship between the parents, as well as anxiety and stress for both the parents and child.

Which school a child will attend is a decision that both parents need to make jointly, unless one parent has sole parental responsibility for the child.

With the new year fast approaching, here are some tips on steps to take to resolve your dispute about schooling prior to the commencement of the first term:

  1. Raise the issue of schooling early and well before the commencement of the school term. Communicate with the other parent about which school you would like your child to attend and the reasons why.
  2. If the other parent does not agree with the school you have proposed and they propose an alternative school, consider whether or not that school would be in the best interests of your child. At the very least you should make your own enquiries and research about the school before coming to any conclusion.
  3. If you still have not reached an agreement invite the other parent to attend family dispute resolution, also known as mediation, to further discuss the issue of schooling. You should prepare for the mediation by researching all schools that have been suggested or which your child could potentially attend and the reasons why you propose your child attends or does not attend those schools

If an agreement can’t be reached at mediation, you will be issued with what is known as a section 60I certificate which will enable you to commence court proceedings to have a court decide which school your child will attend.  This should be a last resort.  Prior to commencing proceedings, you should obtain expert legal advice from an experienced family lawyer about what considerations the court will take into account.  This may also assist you in your negotiations.

If you require assistance with your family law parenting matter, contact our team of expert Cairns family lawyers today on (07) 4036 9700 or enquiries@millerharris.com.au.

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