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26 February 2024

The Lighthouse Model: What Family Lawyers Need to Know

Kathryn KearleyVulnerable families who may be at a safety risk have pathways open to them for additional resources, support, and timely Court events. We spoke to family lawyer and College of Law adjunct lecturer, Kathryn Kearley, to understand the nature of the Lighthouse Model and Evatt List, how they operate, and what family lawyers need to know.

What is the Lighthouse Model and Evatt List?  

The Lighthouse model in Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA) involves:

  • early risk screening of parties through a secure online platform
  • early identification and management of family safety risks
  • assessment and triage of cases by a specialist team who give support and refer the party to appropriate services
  • safe, and suitable case management including referring high risk cases to a dedicated Court list, known as the Evatt List.

The Evatt List is named after the Honourable Elizabeth Evatt AC, the first Chief Justice of the Family Court,” Kathryn says.

It is a specialist list developed by the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA). The list has a highly qualified team of judicial officers, Court child experts and staff, who in consultation with judges, intensively manage eligible cases that are regarded as high risk.”

The Evatt List protocols are set out in the FCFCA’s Family Law Practice Direction – Evatt List

The Evatt List was established to ensure that highly vulnerable families are given resources, support and timely Court events,” Kathryn explains. “Its case management pathway responds to the needs of the family as efficiently and effectively as possible to minimise the risk of trauma and harm.” 

The FCFCA has produced useful resources about the Evatt List including:

Highlights of the Lighthouse Update  

In late 2023, the FCFCA acknowledged the positive response received from lawyers and many parties in support of Lighthouse and the Evatt List,” Kathryn says. “The update reminds lawyers that Lighthouse is a key court initiative which is aimed at and is working to positively address family violence, to improve the outcome in matters involving family violence and risks, and to keep children and parties safe.” 

The update notes the volume of cases to which Lighthouse applies.

From November 2022 to November 2023 the Lighthouse Update says that:

  • parties in nearly 6000 matters completed Family DOORS Triage risk screen
  • over 5600 case file reviews were conducted by Triage Counsellors, and
  • over 1400 matters were placed on the Evatt List.

How can family lawyers get the most out of risk screening and the Evatt list for their clients?  

Family lawyers must practise in a way which fulfills their various duties and reflects best practice,” Kathryn says.

The lawyer’s duties are set out in the Professional Conduct Rules - the Legal Profession Uniform Law Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules.

According to Best Practice Guidelines for Lawyers Doing Family Law Work, published by the Law Council of Australia, best practice in family law is characterised by:

  • A constructive and conciliatory approach to the resolution of family disputes
  • The minimisation of any risks to separating couples and/or children by:
    • alerting separating couples to treat safety as a primary concern
    • avoiding arguments in front of children, and
    • keeping children out of conflicts arising between separating couples
  • Having regard to the interests and protection of children and encouraging long-term family relationships
  • The narrowing of the issues in dispute and the effective and timely resolution of disputes, and
  • Ensuring that costs are not unreasonably incurred.

Therefore, family lawyers need to be aware of the Family DOORS Triage risk and its protocols which will apply to certain clients and matters,” Kathryn says.

Family DOORS Triage risk is a process which screens for risk and considers a range of safety risks frequently seen within family law proceedings. Some of the risks include family violence, mental health issues or drug and alcohol abuse.”  

The parties first complete the Family DOORS Triage risk screen. They are then triaged depending on the identified level of risk.

As Kathryn explains, the triage process assists the Courts to:

  • identify parties who need urgent help
  • focus more specialist attention on parties at high risk, and
  • support lower risk parties move to earlier resolution.

A key part of the triage process is the Triage interview,” Kathryn says.

The Triage Interview can help to reduce a party’s stress about being in family law proceedings and help to reassure them about managing their concerns. The interview process helps parties identify and distinguish between what is relevant and what is not from a legal perspective and create awareness as to their own conduct and triggers the may have.”

What are the benefits for families?  

Kathryn regards the Lighthouse Update and Evatt List as an essential part of the family law system.

As Kathryn explains, these protocols act to address and manage risk in cases where the:

  • Court documents in a case seek either parenting orders only or parenting and financial orders, and
  • Parties are eligible for and completed the Family DOORS Triage risk screening and returned a ‘high risk’ screening classification.

Important consequences can flow from the Lighthouse and Evatt List protocols,” Kathryn says.

Benefits for the parties, as noted in the Update, include:  

  • an opportunity to reflect on what is going well, challenges, and what support might be required
  • support a party can obtain to feel positive about possible future parenting arrangements for the children
  • targeted triaging to identify the beneficial case management and to give a direct and appropriate response to legal issues
  • providing links with community agencies offering support for the parties and children
  • providing a safety plan for parties concerned about safety when attending court.

These protocols aim for better outcomes regarding the safety of children, their parents and families,” Kathryn says.

All family lawyers need to ask appropriate open questions at the initial interview with a new client to get information about whether the client, the other party and the children are safe or at risk and if any family violence has, is or might occur.”

Reviewing the number of cases where safety risks have been identified, raises the significant need for more to be done to address the alarming rates of domestic violence in Australia.

Finally, the sheer volume of cases to which Lighthouse applies shows how prevalent family violence is in Australia and that tailored initiatives are required to address and manage family violence and other risks,” Kathryn concludes.

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By Wenee Yap, Legal Features Writer for the College of Law