Cooperation and coordination

Cooperation and coordination

An evaluation of the Family Court of Australia's Magellan case-management model

Report— October 2007
Cooperation and coordination: An evaluation of the Family Court of Australia's Magellan case-management model

Magellan is an interagency collaborative model of case management in the Family Court of Australia for cases where serious allegations are raised about sexual or physical abuse of children in post-separation parenting matters. Based on a successful pilot project, Magellan has been rolled-out across the Family Court of Australia's registries since 2003. The aim of the current study was to evaluate Magellan against its intended goal of being an effective mechanism for responding to such allegations.

Case-file data from 80 Magellan cases that had progressed through a Magellan list were compared with 80 Magellan-like cases drawn from registries prior to Magellan being implemented there. Results showed that:

  • The average Magellan case took 7.3 months to finalise from the date it was included in a Magellan list, which is only slightly longer than the prescribed timeframe of 6 months.
  • Generally, the Court and other agencies processed Magellan cases differently from Magellan-like cases, in line with the agreed Magellan protocols.
  • There were differences among the registries in protocols, case-management procedures, and some of the success indicators (e.g., timelines).
  • Magellan cases had greater involvement of the statutory child protection department.
  • Magellan cases had an average of 6.2 Court events, compared to 10.9 for Magellan-like cases.
  • Magellan cases were dealt with by 3.4 different judicial officers on average, compared to 5.7 for Magellan-like cases.
  • Magellan cases were more likely to settle earlier.

Magellan matters are resolved more quickly:

  • The total duration of cases, from the date of application to finalisation was shorter by an average of 4.6 months.
  • From the date the Court was advised of the allegations to the case outcome, Magellan cases were resolved 3.4 months faster.

Data from focus groups and interviews with 51 key stakeholders (Magellan Judges, Registrars, mediators, lawyers, police, child protection department, etc.) supported the case-file analysis. The following were identified as key elements of Magellan:

  • cooperation between all the agencies involved (particularly the statutory child protection departments);
  • Court timeliness and prioritisation of Magellan cases;
  • early reports from the child protection department (the "Magellan Report");
  • good individual case management (Judge-led);
  • a dedicated Magellan Registrar;
  • un-capped legal aid funding;
  • Independent Children's Lawyers to independently represent the interests of children; and
  • a focus on children's best interests.

Although there are opportunities for making improvements and assessing the impact on children and families, Magellan is a successful case-management process for responding to allegations of child abuse in parenting matters.

Executive summary

Background

Magellan is a case-management pathway in the Family Court of Australia for cases where serious allegations are raised about sexual or physical abuse of children in post-separation parenting matters. In 1997, the Chief Justice of the Family Court, The Honourable Alastair Nicholson, appointed a committee, led by The Honourable Justice Linda Dessau, to develop a new way for the Court to manage these cases. This was done to address the concerns that the Court had about the number of cases involving allegations of child abuse, and the capacity of its case-management procedures to effectively and efficiently respond to these concerns. The pilot Magellan project commenced in 1998.

The Magellan case-management processes are overseen by the Magellan Team, which consists of the Magellan Judge(s), Judicial Associate(s), Magellan Registrar, the Manager of the Child Dispute Services (which provides Court clients with the services of a mediator, now known as a "Family Consultant"), and a Client Services Officer (Case Coordinator). Under the direction of the Magellan Judge(s), the team handles the case from start to finish, with significant resources directed to the case in the early stages, with an aim of resolving the case within six months.

Based on a successful pilot project, Magellan has been rolled-out across the Family Court of Australia's registries since 2003, under the direction of the Family Court of Australia's National Magellan Stakeholder Committee. This committee was responsible for commissioning the research, and acted as a steering group for the evaluation throughout. The Committee is chaired by a Family Court Judge (The Honourable Justice Rodney Burr), and contains representatives from organisations involved with and concerned about parenting matters involving serious allegation of child abuse, including the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department, Victoria Legal Aid, Victoria Department of Human Services, and National Legal Aid. In August 2006, the Committee called for expressions of interest, and in September, commissioned the Institute to evaluate the implementation of Magellan.

Aim

The overall aim of the study was to evaluate the Magellan case-management model against its intended goal of being an effective mechanism for responding to serious allegations of sexual abuse or physical abuse of children in post-separation parenting matters before the Family Court of Australia.

Method

Two methods of data collection were used to explore this core question:

  1. Quantitative data were extracted from a systematic file review of 80 recently completed Magellan cases (prior to 1 July 2006) that had progressed through a Magellan list in one of three registries (Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne), and were compared with 80 Magellan-like cases that also contained serious allegations of sexual abuse or physical abuse of children. These cases were retrospectively rated by an experienced Magellan Registrar as meeting the criteria for inclusion in Magellan, but were drawn from two registries where Magellan had not been implemented at the time the case was being processed (Parramatta and Sydney).
  2. Qualitative data were gathered through interviews and focus groups with 51 key stakeholders from the Family Court of Australia (Judges, Registrars and Family Consultants/Mediators), as well as professionals from related organisations who are involved in parenting disputes where serious allegations of sexual abuse or physical abuse of children are made. These included legal aid, police, the state/territory child protection departments, and private lawyers. The emphasis of the interviews and focus groups was on Magellan as a case-management system and the perspectives of the participants concerning its effectiveness, successful features, barriers to implementation, and limitations. As well as conducting interviews and focus groups with Judges and stakeholders concerning Magellan cases in three registries (Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne), Judges recently appointed to hear Magellan cases in two registries (Parramatta and Sydney) were interviewed about Magellan-like cases. A focus group of key stakeholders was also held in Sydney concerning Magellan-like cases (and their experiences of Magellan since its implementation).

Key findings

Quantitative results: case-file analysis

Key differences between Magellan and Magellan-like cases were found. Magellan matters:

  • are resolved more quickly (the total length of cases, from the date of application to finalisation is shorter by an average of 4.6 months; from the date the Court was advised of the allegations to the case outcome, Magellan cases were 3.4 months faster);
  • have greater involvement of the statutory child protection department (as demonstrated by the number of investigations, the evidence on file of the department planning to give evidence at trial, and the preparation of a short, focused "Magellan Report" that is presented to the Court early in the matter);
  • have fewer Court events;
  • are dealt with by fewer different judicial officers; and
  • are more likely to settle early.

From the date the case was included in a Magellan list, the average case took 7.3 months, which is only slightly longer than the prescribed timeframe (i.e., 6 months).

Although there were important differences between Magellan and Magellan-like cases, differences were also apparent among registries within the two groups, suggesting that other factors may be playing a role in influencing the progress-and outcome-of cases (such as individual practices of Court personnel and other stakeholders, different workloads and Court resources, as well as the degree of 'model' fidelity in relation to the Magellan case-management system).

Qualitative results: key themes from interviews and focus groups with stakeholders

Participants identified the following as key elements of the Magellan model:

  • cooperation between all the agencies involved (particularly the statutory child protection departments);
  • Court timeliness and prioritisation of Magellan cases;
  • early reports from statutory child protection departments (the "Magellan Report");
  • good individual case management (Judge-led);
  • a dedicated Magellan Registrar;
  • un-capped legal aid funding;
  • Independent Children's Lawyers to help gather information early, foster discussions and represent the interests of children; and
  • child-focused processes (timely, good quality reports from Family Consultants and other experts).

Consistent with the quantitative data, other themes that emerged from the interviews and focus groups about the success of Magellan included:

  • matters were generally believed to finalise more quickly than before;
  • there was better coordination and consistency of approach through Judge-management (but with a concomitant higher burden and risk of burnout for Judges); and
  • relevant information was available in a timely manner (particularly the focused "Magellan Report" from the statutory child protection department).

A speedy response by the Court was seen as critical to the success of Magellan; however, this relies on good cooperation, and the provision of all relevant information from other agencies. In particular, the importance of receiving a timely summary about the actions taken by the statutory child protection department, their views about the veracity of the allegations and any concerns held about future risk to the child was emphasised. Maintaining knowledge about the roles, interactions and points of contact between agencies - and the goodwill that builds up between participants in the stakeholder committees - is also important, particularly when personnel in the intersecting agencies change.

Some opportunities for improvement were noted (such as listing practices, ensuring greater national uniformity, and availability of sufficient judicial time); however, participants still felt that Magellan was a success.

Given that the principal focus of the current evaluation was on procedural issues, opportunities for further evaluation exist, particularly in relation to the cost of Magellan, the views of parents and children, and longer-term outcomes of cases (i.e., whether Magellan is successful in securing the safety of children and, where allegations are not substantiated, in reassuring parents who might otherwise have concerns).

Conclusions and implications

Magellan sits among a complex set of expectations, at the intersection of a range of agencies and systems involved in responding to issues of child abuse allegations in family law matters. It is important to understand the role of family courts - to resolve private law issues, such as parenting matters, in children's best interests - and how this differs from the role of police, child protection departments, forensic investigators, Directors of Public Prosecutions, and criminal courts in protecting children, enforcing laws and bringing criminals to justice.

Each of the agencies and systems has overlapping interests, yet distinct responsibilities. It was this "black spot" intersection that necessitated a case-management system to coordinate and bring together information from each of these areas to ensure that private family law disputes are resolved in a timely way that provides for the safety and ongoing best interests of children. Central to ensuring the best interests of children is the need to balance their right to know and have a relationship with both parents, with the paramount need to be protected from harm. Despite research in the social sciences that shows the frequency with which sexual abuse and serious physical abuse of children occurs, significant difficulty exists in proving the occurrence of child abuse, as the private nature of the crimes result in a lack of evidence that meets the requirements of criminal courts.

Participants thought that the Magellan case-management pathway was an excellent one, and that, to the degree that it was implemented faithfully and adequately resourced (particularly with appropriate judicial time, while avoiding the risk of overburdening Judges), it was achieving its aims. Implementation issues were raised about the lack of fidelity to the original model (especially in Queensland), and the need for high quality, timely reports (and oral evidence) from experts.

Magellan matters were believed to be shorter, often resolving without judicial determination. Participants felt that Magellan delivers better outcomes for children and families. A critical element to this is the tight case-management procedures, particularly the role of Magellan Judges and Registrars. The importance placed on Magellan matters by the Court is reflected in the role that Judges play, and this was seen as one of the ways that the process gives parties a sense of procedural fairness. Through the Magellan stakeholder meetings and the protocols outlining the role of the state/territory statutory child protection department in providing the short, focused "Magellan Report", cooperation with the statutory child protection department was seen as critical to the success of Magellan.

When serious allegations of sexual abuse or physical abuse of children are raised in parenting matters, the Magellan case-management system is a significant improvement to the Family Court's previous procedures for handling these matters. There are areas for improvement and opportunities to ensure adequate resources (in terms of finance, personnel and 'corporate history') for its sustainability. However, the results of this evaluation support the findings of the pilot study, which also showed Magellan's success - particularly in reducing the length of matters, and the number of Court events, as well as satisfaction of the professional stakeholders involved (Brown, Sheehan, Frederico, & Hewitt, 2001).

Magellan needs to be understood within the broader socio-legal framework that connects child protection with family law dispute resolution. At the individual level, a lack of understanding of how the Family Court interacts with police, child protection departments, juvenile courts and criminal courts sees Magellan often subject to unrealistic expectations by parties.

The Family Court is not a forum for investigating abuse allegations or determining the historical accuracy of one or both parents' allegations. It is not within the current mandate of the Family Court to do so, even within the Magellan case-management model. However, the limitations of the broader child welfare and justice system are such that further detailed forensic information is often needed by the Family Court (i.e., via the "Magellan Report") about not only the past allegations, but views on the safety of the child (a) in the current arrangements; and (b) if there was any alteration to the arrangement. Relying on a statutory child protection department's case outcome of substantiated' or 'unsubstantiated' is not sufficient, as this does not necessarily mean the same thing as the child was 'abused' or 'not abused'. Along with the Family Report and other expert opinions, the "Magellan Report" from the statutory child protection department is critical to making appropriate decisions about the child's living arrangement that fully account for all of the risks and what is in their best interests.

Publication details

Report
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, October 2007.
230 pp.
ISBN: 
978-1-920866-06-8
Suggested citation:

Higgins, D. J. (2007). Cooperation and coordination: An evaluation of the Family Court of Australia's Magellan case-management model. Canberra: Family Court of Australia.

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