Researching Reform would very much like to thank Cecilia Lenagh for showing us AVERT, an Australian initiative on family violence and how to better work with vulnerable families inside the family law system. Cecilia is an exceptionally talented social worker and someone we very luckily get to speak with on occasion, to better understand the system of social work; it’s a privilege to be able to chat with her, not just to be able to listen to her but also because she is a terribly kind lady.

Cecilia is a fountain of knowledge with a great deal of experience and has been formally recognised by the Australian government for her outstanding achievements in the field. It is thanks to Cecilia that we got to see this amazing initiative and our first thought upon reading various parts of the website was how great it would be to have something like this here, in the UK…..

It may be that we have something similar in England, but we have yet to spot it (please do let us know if we have missed a UK initiative like this). It is so fabulous and amazing an initiative that it seems almost unthinkable that we don’t have something like this here and yet at the same time, very probable that nothing as genius as this has yet to grace our family justice system.

AVERT is an Australian family violence training package, designed to help all the various different departments and professionals in the system to work together better, to work within their own organisations better and to better understand the dynamics of family violence itself. Given that both the Norgrove Report and more recently, the government have observed the need for the family justice system in England to work more like a cohesive whole and to better equip professionals inside the system, this package seems like the perfect answer, in model type any way, to those prayers.

The professions targeted for the package are lawyers, judges, counsellors, psychiatrists, social workers and students and court workers, to name but a few. The programme itself is divided up into eight key areas, ranging from things like historical information on family violence to common beliefs and myths and their impact on service responses. The key areas themselves are very much worth a look, because to our mind, they touch upon all the most important aspects of this kind of work.

There is an awful lot of free material on the website and we will take the time to read all of it and to educate ourselves on the many areas raised by the initiative. But, we hear you say, the package is designed for Australian professionals; surely it is of limited use to UK practitioners? Well, yes and no.

There are of course country-specific aspects but so much of the content is relevant to us here in the UK that as a model it is almost perfect for us. The section entitled, Responding to Cultural Diversity, although written with Australian cultural diversity in mind, would work equally well for us and just by way of example, if we take a section dedicated to one profession and go through the suggested programme, it becomes very clear that the structure of these courses is not only brilliant but could be very easily imported to the UK.

Whilst we have not yet read everything on the site, we have looked at everything and more purposefully, studied one programme; on this occasion, we randomly selected the programme for judicial officers.

This part of the programme is intended for judges, and focuses on the judge’s role in the family system, in connection with understanding family violence and how to manage the issues efficiently within their roles as judges. The layout of the website itself is fantastic – clear and easy to follow and each programme or section is beautifully laid out in elegant PDFs. This programme doesn’t just look good though, it’s a seriously together little package.

The areas for judges are divided into three parts:

  • Evidence and Family Violence (7 activities)
  • Assessing the Credibility of Witnesses (4 activities)
  • Court Craft (2 activities) << We love the phrase court craft…. so much 🙂

And it’s not just the guidance inside the PDFs that’s astounding and astute, it’s the quality of the observations and the way the exercises are put together, that make AVERT’s efforts so exciting. For example, the programme contains several interesting quotes throughout, which are designed to set the tone for each exercise. Quotes like, “Judges are encouraged to explore their own assumptions, biases and views of the world to reflect on how these may interact with judicial process”.

Already, the programme is challenging conventional processes and speaking clearly about the elephants in the room (we don’t mean the judges, of course, rather we mean the unspoken problems which are part and parcel of working in a field which focuses on human vulnerability, with humans working in that field who are quite naturally, susceptible to their own weaknesses too). Another quote we loved was, “In a world marked by pluralism, in communities where diversity is so prevalent, the judge must become the interpreter of difference”. This of course, is not what happens in most court rooms in ‘real life’. But to remind judges that this needs to be the central part of their working philosophy, is nothing short of genius.

The activities suggested by the programme are intensive and to the point. Sections like “Activity Four: Weighing Up the Evidence” is designed “to highlight how judicial assessments of evidence presented may inadvertently be informed by a range of assumptions, myths and stereotypes”. A bold observation, deftly addressed in the activity’s ensuing pages. But AVERT don’t stop there. The programme offers examples of how judges can fall prey to stereotyping, for example the perception that “men and women (particularly) make false allegations of family violence”. (We see this kind of attitude so often in judges here, that whilst we feel their job must lead to the awful temptation of becoming overtly cynical, they are tasked with being above our normal moral standards, not above the law and so should seek to carry out their duties in the way they were intended). AVERT have been bold and brave and these are just two more reasons why we feel their delicate and deft handling of these issues is second to none.

Again in Activity Five: Controversies in Expert Evidence – The Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) vs Alienated Child, AVERT touch upon several key factors, but the one which caught our attention related to another, often disastrous error. In this activity, the facilitator is asked to “highlight the role that allegations of PAS play in unjustifiably discrediting mothers is increasingly being recognised“. (As Australia is a world leader in family law, learning from bitter experience, it is almost as if we are casting ourselves into the future with AVERT and seeing our own system, perhaps in ten years’ time and if our government heed Australia’s warnings, perhaps we too can be part of the progressive movement in family law).

There are so many excellent sections in this programme, from looking at how domestic violence affects contact and really focusing clearly on the demeanour and behaviour of family members, in a sophisticated and ultra-sleek way (take for example the observation in the programme which states, “There are considerable mythologies associated with expectations that victims fit preconceived notions of the ‘typical victim’….Individuals react to the experience of being subjected to family violence as similarly as individuals react to any experienced event – with a complete lack of uniformity“) that we found ourselves completely bewitched by its sensitive and intuitive perspective, on everything.

Our other area of interest lay in the section on the credibility of witnesses and how demeanour can be a highly unreliable basis for assessing credibility. This will strike a chord with anyone who has had to give evidence in proceedings. It is often the best ‘performer’ who comes across most ‘legitimately’ and yet sometimes, the most honest and accurate party can come away looking like a quivering fraud.  The section goes on to say, “Overall witness demeanor has been increasingly discredited as a tool to determine whether a witness is telling the truth in the judicial setting“.

We also noticed something else extraordinary, which would have surprised us had we seen it before reading some of the content on the website, but if you look at the very bottom of the site, you will see a flag and the words “Acknowledgement of Country” next to it. Click on that and what you get is this:

“Yarta Tampinthi

We acknowledge this Land as the Traditional Lands of the Kaurna People and we respect and support their Spiritual, Physical, Economical, Intellectual and Emotional relationship with their Country.

We also acknowledge the Kaurna people as the custodians of the Adelaide Region and their inherent Cultural and Spiritual beliefs continue to sustain the living Kaurna People today“.

As a progressive and stunningly intelligent project, we thought this dedication was unique and a hallmark of its sincerity and worth.

From learning materials, to training exercises, video clips to help explain the programme and online resources for just about everything under the sun on family violence, AVERT have done something truly remarkable. They have produced a package which is content rich, highly intuitive and elegant; elegant because it not only looks good without being decadent, but also because it manages to deliver its message in pitch perfect tone. No aggression, no judgment, no patronisation.

For all these things, we have placed the Spotlight on AVERT, this week. And we hope that even if just one minister or one peer reads this and considers implementing a similar programme, they will do so wholeheartedly. We know we often get terribly excited about things, but our excitement for AVERT is on another level. We hope the family justice system can raise its game and level the playing field, too.