Parents who do not agree on the care arrangements for their child usually go to court immediately thinking that this is the last alternative for them. They are mistaken because the court will not entertain an application for parenting orders unless they first go through a child dispute conference.
Pursuant to Section 60I of the Family Law Act 1975, any person who applies for a parenting order under Part VII of the Act must first undergo a family dispute resolution or in their specific case, a child dispute conference. A child dispute conference is presided by a family dispute resolution practitioner, who is also called family consultant, and they are psychologists, social workers, and counsellors. In the conference, the parties together with the dispute resolution practitioner will be identifying and threshing out their issues.
The child dispute conference is compulsory and held in the absence of lawyers. The dispute resolution practitioner will be issuing a certificate which will be presented by the party-applicant to the court as one of the requirements to support his application for parenting orders.
Although the conference is for the welfare of a child, parties must not bring or include the child in the conference unless there is a court order. Children are not to be unnecessarily involved in court or dispute proceedings unless the court would order the inclusion of the child.
The ultimate goal of a child dispute conference is for the parties to arrive with a parenting plan specifying the arrangements which are formulated of their own accord. To make the parenting plan more binding between the parties they can apply for consent orders from the court.
In the child dispute conference, the parties will be exercising a greater degree of control in making arrangements for their child as compared to a court action where the decision making is mainly up to the judicial officer. The conference is an opportunity for parties to improve their relationship, to decide amicably on arrangements for their child and to generally make the transition for them and their child as smooth as possible.
During the conference the parties are required to make a genuine effort in resolving the dispute. The dispute resolution practitioner will be able to gauge the genuineness of the effort exerted by the parties since there will be a series of meetings with each of the parties aside from the conference where all parties will be present. The dispute resolution will be observing the manner of each party and will be reporting this to the court.
Parties must be open to discuss options and alternatives to resolving the dispute. They must focus on the parenting issues at hand and not dwell on the reasons for the separation or divorce. Most of all, during the conference the parties must be willing to listen to each other.
The certificate that is issued by the dispute resolution practitioner will state the actual events that transpired during the conference. For example, if only one of the parties attended the conference, the certificate will state just that. If the dispute resolution is a success, the dispute resolution practitioner will be stating in the certificate that the parties attended the conference and have come to an agreement.
The certificate might also state that the parties exerted genuine effort to resolve their issues but failed to reach an agreement. Whatever the case may be, the court will accept the dispute resolution certificate as proof that the parties complied with the requirement.
If the parties do not have an agreement or parenting plan, the court will then proceed to entertain the application for parenting orders.
There are some exceptions to the requirement of a child dispute conference. Parties need not go through a conference anymore if all the parties consent to the arrangements made by the applicant. There is also no need to have a conference if there are allegations of child abuse and family violence.