Emma is in her second year of a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) degree at Queensland University of Technology. She spent time with the Dispute Resolution Branch’s Child Protection Conferencing Unit in May.
My Justice Journey started bright and early at the Brisbane Magistrates Court. I was a little nervous upon arrival as I had only been there once before as part of an activity for a unit I had taken in the first semester of my law degree at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
I made my way to the Dispute Resolution Branch (DRB) where I was to job-shadow the court-ordered Child Protection Conferencing Unit (CPCU). I was greeted by my contact, Gabrielle, the CPCU manager, who gave me a tour of DRB.
On our tour, I met wonderful people who were friendly and welcoming, working in various areas of dispute resolution. One of the areas I was particularly interested in was Restorative Justice – an area that provides mediation services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The tour ended at our destination, CPCU, where I was greeted by walls filled with names, places and dates listed on various whiteboards, a map of Queensland situated in the corner and Gabrielle’s colleague, Keeva. My first impression of the unit was that there was a great deal of coordination and detail involved in the day-to-day activity of those who work there.
The unit is an integral part of the justice system which aims to keep children safe within their home. When Child Safety, part of the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services, believes that it is in the best interests of a child to have them removed from their family (which could be due to abuse or neglect for example), Child Safety will apply to the Magistrates Court for a short or long-term removal order or a supervisory and/or directive order. When the application is made, the carer (usually the parents) of the child will advise the court whether they accept the order or oppose it. If they accept the order, the application for removal will progress. If the carer opposes it, the court orders them and Child Safety to participate in a conference facilitated by CPCU.
The conference is a forum where the different parties put forward their opinions for discussion in a confidential setting, mediated (overseen/managed) by an independent party (the convenor/mediator). The hope is that a negotiated outcome can be reached.
There are three potential outcomes from the conference:
The unit organises the conference— when the court orders the parties to participate in a conference a file is sent to CPCU, who log the date and time for the conference. They contact everyone dealing with the child to discuss the process. They then arrange for a mediator to attend.
The CPCU was established in 2013 as a division of the Dispute Resolution Branch (part of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General). The CPCU arranges about 500 mediated conferences throughout Queensland each year.
Thirty-five convenors statewide travel to court locations to facilitate conferences. When a conference is scheduled, a short brief is provided to the convenor to help facilitate the conference. It gives them an understanding of where the parties stand and the nature and level of participation that the parties will likely take.
Meanwhile another CPCU staff member contacts everyone involved in the conference to confirm the time and place of the conference as well as discuss the process of the conference. It’s common for the lawyers, representatives and Child Safety to be aware of the conference processes, but not the carer.
Understanding the process gives parents a better chance to engaging in the conversation, providing a greater balance of power between the parents and Child Safety during negotiation that results in a satisfactory outcome.
One way for CPCU to provide this assistance is to ask the parents questions that encourage them to focus on the best interest of the children. Helping them to consider the issues and what they could bring to the negotiation.
During my experience, I listened in to these kinds of conversations and was impressed with the dedication of CPCU to provide this assistance to every carer they called. The kinds of questions asked ranged from “What do you think that Child Safety would be worried about?” to those tailored to drug-related cases such as “Have you done your tests or courses?” However, there are four questions that are asked of each person to consider and these are the four questions that are commonly used in the actual conference:
With these questions to consider, the carers are in a better position to engage in the conference that will help determine the future of their child and their relationship with that child. It is for this reason that CPCU exists—to provide an effective impartial process that will better facilitate all parties’ access to justice.
The people that I job-shadowed were wonderful individuals who were dedicated and believed in the work that they did.
I was impressed with the knowledge and skills on display that day. Gabrielle impressed me with her knowledge of the individual cases when she assisted Keeva in understanding the dynamic of a particularly complex family situation. Keeva impressed me with her communication skills when she spoke to individual parents on the phone explaining the process of the conference. They provided me with a lot of information that has helped me to understand the way in which the Queensland justice system impacts and supports the lives of Queenslanders. Gabrielle was also kind enough to organise an opportunity for me to sit in on a mediated conference on another day, which proved to be another rewarding and insightful experience.
I arrived at the Redcliffe Court House a few days after my first day with CPCU where I met Cate, the convenor of the conference. Cate discussed with me the general details of the conference that I was there to observe, along with her initial thoughts of the case and what, in her experience, the options for likely outcomes might be. That’s not to say that she can aptly predict the outcome of every conference she mediates but based on the information provided to her, from CPCU, she could come to an educated conclusion as to the likeliest outcome.
The time then came for Cate to greet the parties and to ask for their consent to allow me to sit in the room and observe the proceedings. The parties consented.
As all court-ordered conferences are confidential (and therefore cannot be used in the court room afterwards), I am unable to discuss the details of the case. What I can say is that I was impressed by Cate’s ability to facilitate a conference and the particular style that she used to ensure that all parties were given time to speak. All parties understood what was discussed—with the child’s wellbeing front and centre. Towards the end of the conference, Cate asked one party if they required the room to discuss what had been said in the conference in a private setting. They agreed and the remaining parties, Cate and I left the room until they signalled for us to return. The mediation ended soon after that as the parties were unable to come to a negotiated agreement.
After spending time with CPCU I have come away from my Justice Journey thoroughly impressed by the people who work in these areas of dispute resolution. I believe that they are an important part of the Queensland justice system as they provide an impartial process which ensures a fairer and more balanced interaction for carers and their children with Queensland’s justice system.
I am grateful for this experience and the time spent shadowing these incredible people who, although they are just ordinary people performing their duties, do their jobs with a strong belief in what they do.