Family courts have one primary consideration when deciding on parenting matters: the child(ren) ‘s best interests. Whether deciding on where a child should spend their time (parenting time) or who should have the right to make decisions about important issues such as medical care or religious upbringing (decision-making authority), the driving factor behind every court decision should be what would be the most beneficial to the child in question. In many cases, the information used to make this decision will come from the family directly. However, sometimes courts (and parents) need input from someone other than the family to gain a neutral perspective on what would best serve a child when the parents cannot agree.
When parents have difficulty determining the best arrangement for parenting time and/or decision-making authority of their minor children, a court may order the family to undergo what is referred to as a parenting assessment or a bilateral assessment. This process can help provide clarity on the best interests of the child involved because a qualified third party (referred to as a “Parenting Expert”) will conduct an inquiry in order to provide an opinion to the court on what arrangements would be in the child’s best interests. Often, parents involved in a dispute over time and authority over the children’s lives will have negative feelings towards the other parent, which could cloud their ability to see what would most benefit their child. Retaining a third party experienced in child and family assessments to provide their opinion can help give a court the clarity necessary to make the most beneficial decision possible.
Information regarding parenting assessments is set out in Court of Queen’s Bench Alberta’s Family Law Practice Note 8, which defines a parenting assessment as “an objective, neutral evaluation carried out by a Parenting Expert as an aid to litigation.” They are most commonly engaged when a family finds themselves at an impasse in trying to determine the best parenting plan for their family.
A Parenting Expert must be approved by the court but is generally defined as a psychologist with sufficient training and experience to give opinion evidence on parenting arrangements, responsibilities, and decision-making. Specifically, guidelines published by the College of Alberta Psychologists recommend that those looking to be qualified as Parenting Experts have special training in and knowledge of several topics, including:
The use of parenting assessments by courts and their impact on a court’s ultimate decision may vary depending on where the litigation is taking place. In a 2017 study by the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, the researchers looked at parenting assessments in three different provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario.
The study examined family law cases involving parenting issues in each province from January 1, 2014, to December 31, 2015. Of the three provinces, Alberta courts made use of parenting assessments least often, with assessments being ordered in only 8 of 57 cases, roughly 14%. This is compared with around 25% of cases in Ontario and over 35% of cases in British Columbia. This was partly attributed to the difference in cost of these assessments in Alberta versus the other provinces.
Costs and the amount of time an assessment takes can vary significantly depending on the time and level of investigation involved; however, the study did indicate that assessments in Alberta tend to cost much more than in the other two provinces examined. In an article published in 2017 by LawNow Magazine, the average costs for an assessment range from $6,000-$15,000 in both British Columbia and Ontario, whereas the range in Alberta is closer to $20,000-$40,000. The higher cost in Alberta is partly attributed to the very detailed guidelines for the process provided by the College of Alberta Psychologists. In contrast with other provinces, the guidelines have been interpreted as requiring Parenting Experts in the province to take an investigative approach to the process, which can involve verifying information provided by family members or other witnesses and proactively seeking out additional information to ensure they have a complete picture of the family dynamic.
As a result of this investigative approach, assessments in Alberta tend to take longer than in other provinces. Whereas Ontario and British Columbia average between 3 to 8 months, the time estimate in Alberta is 8 to 12 months. Due to the expense and the time involved, Practice Note 8 mandates that a court ascertain the parties’ respective ability to pay for an assessment before one is ordered. The parties will usually each bear a portion of the assessment cost based on the court’s ultimate decision in their matter.
Ultimately, a comprehensive parenting assessment can help both families and courts by providing insight into a child’s point of view and the potential impact of various parenting plans by involving trained experts in the decision-making process. However, due to the high cost and the time required to undergo an assessment, this might not be a feasible option for every family.
At Mincher Koeman, we practice family law exclusively. Our divorce lawyers have represented clients in all types of matters regarding decision-making ability and parenting time, ranging from amicable to high conflict. We will provide each client with a full picture of their rights and obligations with respect to the care of their child or children and provide experienced advocacy in court if necessary. We have built our practice to ensure that each client receives first-rate client service and will always be sure to steer clients towards the most efficient resolution of their matter, keeping costs down whenever possible. To discuss your matter with a family lawyer, contact our firm by calling us at 403-910-3000 or by contacting us online.
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