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From the CEO: Speaking up for our most vulnerable

Cite as: December 2011 85(12) LIJ, p.06

We must continue to play a key role in child protection matters.

We are moving towards an important deadline in the area of family law. It’s the day – 27 January 2012 – that the inquiry into Victoria’s child protection system by former Supreme Court judge Philip Cummins is due to report by. The Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry is one of the most significant examinations of the child protection system, including the operation of the Children’s Court.

The Victorian government established the inquiry to investigate systemic problems in Victoria’s child protection system and make recommendations to strengthen and improve the protection and support of vulnerable young Victorians. The inquiry will inform the government about how to reduce the incidence and negative impact of child neglect or abuse and strengthen the protection of children who are at risk of, or have experienced, neglect or abuse.

It will consider the effectiveness of existing systems and processes, and enhancements in systems and services to protect children. Under the terms of reference of the inquiry, there is specific reference to possible changes to the processes of the courts, referencing the recent work of and options put forward by the Victorian Law Reform Commission.

There is also specific reference in the inquiry to the appropriate roles and responsibilities of government and non-government organisations in relation to Victoria’s child protection policy and systems. As well, the inquiry is looking at the interaction of departments and agencies, the courts and service providers and how they can better work together to support at-risk families and children.

The LIV, which welcomes the wide-ranging investigation, has made a submission to the inquiry. More than 200 written submissions and more than 100 verbal submissions were received from people and groups involved in child protection in Victoria. Clearly, there is a very great desire to help our most vulnerable, to make Victoria’s child protection system the best it can be.

The key message of the LIV’s submission centres on the need to prioritise the best interests of the child and the need to monitor the quality of services administered by the Department of Human Services while promoting increased accountability within relevant departments, agencies and service providers.

In the inquiry’s terms of reference, it asks what changes should be considered to enhance the likelihood that legal processes work in the best interests of vulnerable children and in a timely way.

The LIV, which has a strong commitment to promoting the rights of children and young people, submits that there is an ill-founded premise that the court process contributes significantly to deficits in the child protection system. The LIV is fully confident in the judiciary and practitioners working towards a favourable outcome for the child. But it recommends the expansion of the Children’s Court Clinic service to strengthen these favourable outcomes.

The clinic, which provides vital support to families accessing the family law jurisdiction, does psychological and psychiatric assessments of children and families for the Children’s Court. It also does assessments relating to the impact of drug use on a young person and makes recommendations about treatment. The clinic’s reports are used to help judges and magistrates make decisions in the Family and Criminal Divisions of the Children’s Court. This service is very effective in dealing with children and youth issues and it is crucial that this government continues supporting the clinic with increased funding.

Lawyers must continue to play a key role in child protection matters – and not be removed from the court process as has been suggested. We believe that decisions surrounding the welfare of a child should be made with the best resources possible. And that includes lawyers who have the training to interpret family disputes and the authority and professional impartiality to manage cases and steer them towards resolution. Whether through ADR processes, which we strongly advocate, or adjudication, we believe there will be better outcomes for children and families with the involvement of lawyers. Lawyers give children and parents a voice.

The LIV also submits that the powers of the judiciary be extended to afford a greater level of control over those who work directly with children. We encourage greater interaction between government departments, the courts and service providers so they can better support at-risk children and families.

We hope to see the LIV’s submission reflected in the inquiry’s recommendations and advice to government regarding the immediate, medium and long-term priorities aimed at strengthening Victoria’s family, child protection and associated service systems, and improving outcomes for Victorian children at risk.

Read the LIV submission at: www.liv.asn.au/Membership/Practice-Sections.

The LIV helps members meet their CPD requirements by scheduling 300 CPD education activities each year. Among program highlights in 2012 is the LIV’s Victorian Legal Symposium, on 29 February, 1 March and 2 March, at the Sofitel, Collins Street. The symposium will provide practitioners with an opportunity to gain essential skills in ethics, professional skills and practice management, as well as in six substantive law areas. It will also include streams in environmental law; technology for lawyers, and practice management for legal support staff (see www.liv.asn.au/Education---Events/Legal-Symposium).

In all, the symposium will host 10 programs across three days, as well as the trade fair, which I recommend delegates attend to see the latest practice management and technology tools.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a safe and happy holiday. Merry Christmas and happy new year from everybody at the LIV.

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