Family Relationships Quarterly No.16
Facilitating psychological support for Family Law Court clients: The Mental Health Support Program
By Clare Witnish and Catherine Caruana
Services working with families involved in family law litigation may be interested to learn more about court protocols relating to the management of client mental health problems. The courts' Mental Health Support Program also provides a potential template for services wishing to improve both their support of distressed clients and their partnerships with organisations available to assist them. The following article provides an overview of the strategy as it applies in the Family Law Courts,1 including insights from one of the architects of the strategy, Justice Le Poer Trench2 of the Family Court of Australia.
Involvement in family law litigation can be an extremely stressful experience at the best of times, but particularly so for those clients struggling with issues such as mental illness, the emotional fallout from family breakdown and the personal issues often implicated in that breakdown (Rodgers, Smyth, & Robinson, 2004). This can make the navigation of court processes problematic. While the courts do not have a direct role in providing mental health services to court users, they recognise their responsibility to ensure that court staff are equipped to deal sensitively with affected clients and to refer them to appropriate services (Attorney-General's Department [AGD], 2009). When developing the Integrated Service Delivery Program, the courts consulted with experts in areas such as mental health, communication and client service delivery, as well as drawing on the insights of their staff, to develop ways of better supporting clients through the challenges of separation and litigation.
The Family Court of Australia developed the Mental Health Support Program with funding from the Department of Health and Ageing, under the National Suicide Prevention Strategy. The program aims, as set out in the final report (AGD, 2009, pp.6-7), are:
- to provide clients with access to the resources, counselling, and support they need to look after their mental health and overall wellbeing (these are services that are not available in the courts);
- to ensure clients, particularly those who may be mentally ill or distressed, are treated with respect and without judgement by staff; and
- to ensure clients receive services tailored to their particular needs, with particular attention paid to the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse clients and clients with fears for their safety.
The program was first piloted in the Adelaide and Northern Territory registries of the Family Court from 2005 to 2006 and, following an evaluation, rolled out nationally in all registries of the Family Law Courts in early 2007. It forms part of the Integrated Client Service Delivery Program, which, according to the Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, "aims to ensure that best practice, client-focused principles are incorporated into the courts' service delivery" (AGD, 2009, p. 1).
The development of the Mental Health Support Program was informed by the Living is For Everyone (LiFE)3 framework, which stipulates that suicide prevention initiatives must be outcome focused, evidence-based and include expert involvement. The program has four key elements:
- Court clients who appear to be affected by mental health problems are linked directly to existing community-based counselling services. This can be done by "warm-linking"4 or by other means that ensure the contact is made.
- Statements of Understanding have been developed between the courts and mental health support providers.5 These agreements help clarify the roles and responsibilities of each party and to identify the operational mechanisms and infrastructure needed to support the arrangements.
- Self-help brochures for clients containing information on available services are freely available at the courts.
- The program has clear guidelines for staff when dealing with clients presenting with a broad range of mental health problems ranging from stress to behaviour indicating threat of harm to self or others.
- There are distinct protocols relating to different perceived levels of risk:
- preventative referrals, to guide staff though dealing with all new clients;
- responsive referrals, when dealing with clients demonstrating a mental health need; and
- emergency procedures, when there is an immediate concern.
- The program protocols are:
- limited to one page;
- contain a series of steps;
- are colour coded for easy identification;
- include tips and suggested scripts; and
- explain the purpose of each step.
Copies of all protocols are available on the resources CD attached to the final report (AGD, 2009), which is available from the Family Law Courts (see details below for obtaining a copy of the report).
3. Staff skilling and support
- Ongoing training, targeted to each specific staff group within the courts, from administrative personnel to judicial officers, is delivered by a court trainer in conjunction with a mental health expert. These sessions provide education about mental health problems, and aim to de-stigmatise mental illness and equip staff to identify those who may require support.
- A number of strategies have been put in place to reinforce and support the use of these new skills by staff. These include a Peer-to-Peer Support Program to assist staff after a difficult interaction with a client.
- Copies of actual training materials used, including six training scenarios and a detailed overview of the courts' training program are also included in the CD attached to the Attorney-General's (2009) final report.
The independent evaluation of the program, which included client surveys and staff focus groups, informs a process of continuous improvement.
Following independent evaluations on previously determined performance measurements, the pilot program (see Family Court of Australia, 2006) and the national roll out of the final program were found to have resulted in positive outcomes, for both clients and staff. This included some unanticipated benefits. The program was found to be successful in developing relationships between local court registry staff and mental health services. This in turn helped community agencies to be more familiar with court processes, insights they could then pass on to their clients. There was general support amongst referral bodies for the warm-referral process as a strategy to prevent those in need falling between the cracks.
Across all court locations, staff reported greater confidence dealing with difficult situations and clients and in making appropriate referrals. They reported a 90% rating of confidence in their ability to empathise with clients (AGD, 2009), and appreciated the opportunity to offer clients concrete assistance, rather than send them away with a brochure. This has not only led to improvements in client perception of the courts and their services, but has also helped to reduce staff anxiety in responding to clients with mental health problems. Just as clients were being treated with more compassion, managers reported greater understanding amongst staff for colleagues dealing with personal issues.
The training of staff was successful in all areas, but most particularly in the area of increased knowledge, and the retention of that knowledge (such as safety and emergency protocols) over time (AGD, 2009). In an interview regarding the program, Justice Le Poer Trench commented that training was a far more effective tool to increase staff knowledge as compared to staff accessing such knowledge via a website. He has found the regular training for judges at Judge's Conferences to be extremely useful, for example, a session on the manifestation of mental illness and the likely impact of particular judicial styles on such clients.
Clients have also reported benefits from the program, with 91% of those surveyed indicating they were satisfied with the service they received (AGD, 2009). Information provision lead to clients being better prepared for the court environment, which in turn reduced client stress. For those referred to external agencies for counselling, 81% indicated they were satisfied with these agencies (AGD, 2009).
National roll out of the program
There were few changes to the program for the national roll out in 2007, funded by the Department of Health and Ageing, apart from the fine-tuning of the protocols and tailoring of the training program to more specifically address the needs of particular staff groups. Since the program became a permanent feature of the Family Law Courts' client service delivery, the majority of court staff at registries around Australia (excluding Western Australia) have undergone training. Over 100,000 self-help brochures have been distributed to clients. A set of mental health messages for clients has also been included in a range of relevant court brochures. In addition, a key mental health message was included in the style manual, which guides the development of all court documentation. The program has received two awards - a 2007 LiFE Award in the public sector category, and a silver award in the 2008 Australia and New Zealand Mental Health Service Achievement Awards which promote innovation and excellence in the mental health field.
The Mental Health Support Program of the Family Law Courts is a unique forensic initiative in Australia. This program, viewed in conjunction with the less adversarial trial process, which is now standard procedure in parenting matters in the Family Court of Australia, appears to be helping to humanise the often stressful and alienating experience of litigation in family law disputes. The success of the Family Law Courts in taking the emotional wellbeing of its clients and its staff seriously, and developing enduring relationships with mental health practitioners, is a model that may well be transferable to other agencies and services.
Attorney-General's Department. (2009). Integrated client service delivery, featuring mental health support. Final report: A Family Law Courts' skilling and client support program. Canberra: Attorney-General's Department.
Family Court of Australia. (2006). Mental Health Support Pilot Project: Final report. Canberra: Family Court of Australia.
Rodgers, B., Smyth, B., & Robinson, E. (2004). Mental health and the Family Law System. Journal of Family Studies, 10(1), 50-70.
For a hardcopy of the final report, Integrated client service delivery, featuring mental health support. Final report: A Family Law Courts' skilling and client support program, complete with CDs, contact:
The Communications Office,
Family Court of Australia
Ph: (02) 6243 8691
Clare Witnish is a Research Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse.
Catherine Caruana is a Senior Research Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse.
1. That is, the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Magistrates' Court.
2. Justice Le Poer Trench was chair of the Steering Committee for the project.
4. The staff member will initiate contact with the service, with the client’s permission, before passing the call on to client.
5. These included the national telephone crisis counseling services, Lifeline and Mensline, ensuring all clients have access to some form of support, regardless of location.