An inquiry into child protection in the Northern Territory has been told that the legal safeguards for children are overly complex and riddled with conflicts of interest.
The independent inquiry was established by the Northern Territory Government to explore possible reforms to its child protection system.
Last week the submission of the Acting Chief Magistrate, John Birch, was made public. He told the inquiry that all legal matters should be heard in one court. Currently, both the Youth Justice Court and Local Court are used.
Birch's tenure as Acting Chief Magistrate will come to an end on 16 August, with the appointment of Hilary Hannam as Chief Magistrate. She was previously the President of the Magistrates Association of New South Wales.
Birch's submission follows a damning assessment of the Territory's child protection legal system by the Law Society of Northern Territory.
In its 16 page submission, Law Society said there is widespread misunderstanding in the court system of the role of the Care and protection of Children Act (CPCA).
The Law Society highlighted that under the CPCA, the court may appoint a child representative if it is in the best interests of the child to do so, but that in practice, there are problems with the appointment.
The Law Society believes there is a conflict of interest in the tender stage of the appointment, with the Northern Territory Families and Children Advisory Council both paying for the child's representative and being involved in determining their appointment.
It is recommended by the Law Society that an independent body nominates the lawyer from a panel of suitably qualified lawyers to represent the child.
Other recommendations by the Law Society include amending the legislation to provide further guidelines about the circumstances in which a child's representative must be appointed, bi-annual reviews of care plans for children within the system, regular audits of the child protection system and that Indigenous children should only be placed with a member of a child's family where it is in the best interests of the child to do so.
The Law Society believes that Section 10 of the Act, which deals with the paramount considerations of the best interests of the child, should supersede Section 12 of the Act which stipulates that Indigenous children should be placed with the member of the child's family as a priority.
The inquiry is due to hand its report to the Territory Government on 17 September.
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