On Wednesday 12 May 2021, I attended a webinar addressing Confidentiality in Court Ordered Therapy. This was held by the Greater West Family Law Practitioners Association as part of their Online Twilight Seminar Series, and was hosted by Dr Lucia Vardanega and Ms Rhondda Matthews from the Family Relationship Network.

Ms Matthews founded the Family Relationship Network in 2017 to meet the need for affordable services by practitioners with experience in family law. She is a forensic social scientist and single expert for the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court, and a Regulation 7 Family Consultant for the Federal Circuit Court, and has also worked with children and families for over thirty years with extensive experience in family law, child protection, and family support.

Dr Vardanega is a psychologist with thirty five years of experience with children and families. She began work as a Family Consultant in the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court in 1986, and now works with families in an assessment and therapy capacity in private practice, including as a Regulation 7 Family Consultant and as a family therapist.

Family therapy is a form of intervention to address issues impacting mental health, and the functioning of the family unit. It recognises the family as the starting point for development, and understands that individuals in a family do not operate in isolation, and highlights the importance of addressing systemic and generational patterns in creating positive change.

The webinar focused on the distinct nature of family therapy within a litigious context. While family therapy is usually undertaking with the goal of becoming an intact family unit, court ordered family therapy is usually undertaken with different motivations, such as to become a functional family unit in separation. In addition to this, the court ordered nature of therapy can introduce elements of coercion and distrust.

The presenters noted that family therapy in court ordered context is not considered to be confidential, and that parties are often advised of this. This is due to the subpoenaing of therapists notes, and can impact on the willingness of parties to engage, and ultimately on the success of the practice. It was advised that it is more beneficial for all parties involved to seek a brief report from the family therapist, as this is likely to be more accurately interpreted than personal notes, and preserves the effectiveness of family therapy practice.

Practically, the webinar noted circumstances in which a referral to family therapy may be helpful as follows;

  • Communication issues between parties- particularly in assisting parties to communicate in a child focused way.
  • Need for child focused practice- helping parents to identify how their own experiences of rejection, abandonment, or past family issues may be impacting them and their children, and assisting them to both identify realistic fears, and understand that their child’s relationship with their partner can validly vary from their own.
  • Overcoming alignment and marginalization by children- fostering genuine relationships with both parents, and how best to re-engage a child who has disconnected from parent/s during family conflict.
  • Working with children- unpacking and challenging erroneous beliefs around the family unit and any events, whilst working with adolescent thinking (e.g. splitting- seeing one parent as wholly good and one parent as wholly bad).

This webinar is to be published online by the Greater West Family Law Practitioners Association at a later date.

Emma Youdale