Event Report: Experiences of Neurodiversity in Family Law Webinar
Date: Wednesday, 23 March 2022
Time: 12:00pm – 1:30pm AEST
Venue: Youtube Live via Zoom
Speakers: Judy Singer and Elena Campbell
About the Presenters:
Judy Singer is an Australian sociologist who coined the term ‘Neurodiversity’ in a 1998 Honours Thesis at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Her work was based on her lived experience in the middle of three generations of women “somewhere on the autistic spectrum”” and built on the achievements of the Disability Rights Movement and its academic arm, Disability Studies. Judy has been active in community organizing since the 1990s, both in the local Sydney region and internationally via social media, with a focus on public housing advocacy and disability rights.
Elena Campbell is a researcher, lawyer, speechwriter and former political staffer who has worked in legal and social policy for over 20 years. Elena’s expertise includes therapeutic justice, women’s criminalization, equal opportunity and human rights, as well as the prevention and elimination of violence against women and children. At the RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice, Elena oversees a program of research which predominantly focuses on family violence, as well as the way in which experiences of trauma can push women and children into contact with the criminal justice system.
On Wednesday the 23rd of March, the Family Law Pathways Network Greater Melbourne ran a webinar on the experiences of neurodiversity in family law. The event involved sociologist Judy Singer and lawyer and researcher Elena Campbell speaking about the challenges faced by neurodiverse people in accessing and interacting with the legal system. Commencing the presentation, Judy Singer spoke about the general concept of neurodiversity; that the more diverse a culture is, the more sustainable it is. Neurodiversity describes the idea that there is no one 'right’ way of thinking, instead people experience and interact with the world in different ways. Judy acknowledged the importance of an amalgamation of both the medical model, where medical intervention is used to assist neurodiverse individuals with adjusting to society, and the social model, which advocates for societal changes in policy, education and universal design to suit everyone. Neurodiversity's focus on brain differences instead of deficits intends to challenge the simplistic dichotomies about human minds and change the cultural perceptions of what it means to be human. In the family law context, the neurodiversity discourse aims to reduce the stigma associated with disabilities and push for policy changes to better accommodate neurodivergent people.
Following Judy, Elena Campbell spoke about the Centre for Innovative Justice’s research into people’s varied experiences in court and legal settings and the reforms needed to improve user reality and outcomes. In particular, Elena’s research focuses on how legal and court systems must become better equipped to respond to users and to work with diversity rather than around it. The current legal system is system-driven, creating barriers due its formal and exclusive nature, conceptual and convoluted processes, language and listenability issues and loaded expectations of ‘reasonableness’ and ‘objectivity’. In terms of the reality of the legal system versus its design, the court environment often compounds user’s stress, anxiety and trauma responses. The diverse backgrounds, capacities and abilities of court users are not properly recognized by the ‘one size fits all’ system. Furthermore, the legal system’s response to difference is to accommodate and make exceptions. This ultimately does not benefit the development of a better understanding of neurodiversity as perceptions of what is ‘typical’ are not challenged. Family violence systems are geared to identify differences as ‘deficits’, leading to mitigated sentences or service referrals instead of human-centered approaches.
Elena advocated for the legal system to take on a more strengths-based approach wherein diversity is centered. For family law system users this would result in better outcomes and improved interactions, especially for users with different developmental capacities such as children. A user-centered legal response requires family law practitioners to have developed expertise in the different ways in which clients communicate and/or experience the world. This can be achieved through open communication with clients about their particular needs and expectations and modelling effective and respectful approaches to diversity in client interactions and in court.
Questions and discussion
1. How can the legal profession improve communication strategies with neurodiverse persons?
Judy suggested the importance of legal professionals being able to understand the differences and prejudices that exist for neurodiverse people and how that can translate to real world settings. For example, a person with a tic disorder or ADHD may struggle to properly explain themselves which can result in their legal needs not being met. Thus, training in the kinds of barriers faced by neurodiverse people is essential.
2. To what extent do lawyers and mediators use the knowledge of psychologists to better understand the different presentations of their clients?
Elena acknowledged that this is not common practice for lawyers and mediators but that it depends on where clients are accessing support. Lawyers at Victoria Legal Aid undergo family violence and trauma-informed training, and there will perhaps be opportunities for training in neurodiversity in the future. As private practitioners are not usually equipped with this same kind of training, Elena encouraged them to take on this responsibility to better understand their clients. Legal professionals are responsible to both the legal system and to their clients to minimize the harm being perpetuated by their client. This is especially important in family law settings where children are often involved and reputational damage can be profound.
3. How can courts better recognize the alienated parents during a family law matter who are waiting for the opportunity to see their children?
Elena observed that this was a failing of the current legal system where there is a profound lack of support services available to court users in the intervening period of a matter. The system is notorious for imposing systemic interventions where it equates activity with effectiveness. Elena’s work focuses on the lack of supports available which means that people continue to pose a risk and other people remain at risk. Elena advocated for courts to better understand themselves as operating within this system. For example, the need for a respondent practitioner in the Magistrates’ Court who contacts people subject to protection orders and checks they are getting access to services.