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The family can be viewed as a private world, one into which courts should be reluctant to intrude. In our society, recognition of the specialness of the parent/child relationship is well entrenched: “The best person to bring up a child is the natural parent.” Yet legal intervention in this relationship may be justified when children need protection.
The resulting tension is the principal subject of this book. An Australian court dealing with a child must seek the outcome most likely to promote that child’s “best interests”. The book includes case studies illustrating the difficulties magistrates and judges have encountered in applying the best interests test. These cases also prompt questions about the capacity of courts to make effective orders when children are not receiving adequate care: a court order cannot re-make a child’s life. The first part of the book looks at the various issues that may arise in regards to different views on what “best interests” may be. Cultural diversity must also be taken into account. To what extent should Australian law seek to accommodate differing views on child-rearing? This question is particularly relevant to an examination of the impact on Indigenous communities of current child protection policies. Cultural bias can be criticised, but the system should not lose sight of the goals and standards expected of procedures designed to achieve what is best for all children, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
In addition to considering cases in which parents’ authority is challenged, Part II of the book addresses another issue. When a dispute arises about the medical treatment of a mature child, the child may assert the power to give the necessary consent to, or to decline, the treatment. If the adult world disapproves of the child’s decision a court can override it on the ground that the child is vulnerable and needs protection. Is this a benevolent application of the “best interests” test or unwarranted paternalism?