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E22: Private investigators in family law

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Private investigators can play a pivotal role in serving documents and collecting evidence in complex family law cases.  In this episode Benjamin Bryant and Heather McKinnon from Bryant McKinnon Lawyers talk to Steve Wallis, Managing Director of SWA Recovery & Investigation Group about how private investigators work and where they can add value in family law matters.

With over 40 years’ experience in investigations, Steve shared insights into a PIs day to day life and busted some of the myths about his profession.  We also covered specific questions regarding how and when private investigators are able to assist family law clients and solicitors.  Topics covered include:

  1. The value of using private investigators to “prove” adultery.
  2. How private investigators can track down missing or hidden assets.
  3. How private investigators assist in domestic violence and child abuse cases.
  4. How private investigators track down missing persons, including ex-partners.
  5. How and when private investigators get involved in serving court documents.

To conclude the show we asked Steve to provide his best advice to anyone considering hiring a private investigator.  We recommend you have a listen before investing in a PI!

Links & Resources Mentioned in This Episode

SWA Recovery & Investigation Group – this is the website to private investigation firm which Steve Wallis heads.  As mentioned in the podcast, we do recommend that you talk to a solicitor before investing in an investigator on a family law matter.

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to The Family Matters Show

Benjamin Bryant: Hello everyone and welcome to Episode 22 of The Family Matters Show. I’m your host, Benjamin Bryant from Bryant McKinnon Lawyers. And I’m very happy to be here again with my business partner, Heather McKinnon. Here we are again Heather. Are you happy to be back in the recording room?

Heather McKinnon: Always happy to be here sharing our knowledge with the community.

Benjamin Bryant: And today we are not alone. We are joined by a terrific guest to talk to us about the world of private investigators and how and when they get involved with family law cases. Steve Wallace is the managing director of SWA Recovery and Investigation Group, which operates in Coffs Harbour, Kempsey, Newcastle, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. He holds a Master Commercial and Private Inquiry Agent License and has been licensed in the industry since 1982. So he brings us almost 40 years of experience in private investigation and recoveries. Over the last decade, he has developed the SWA brand, aiming to offer a complete recovery approach. His agency service banks, credit unions, finance companies, other commercial and investigation agencies throughout Australia and of course, legal firms like ours. We quite often turn to Steve and his team to assist us in matters, and we are delighted to have him join us on today’s show. Welcome, Steve. It’s great to have you with us today.

Steve Wallace: Thanks, Ben. Thanks for the invitation and Heather. I’m very happy to be here.

Benjamin Bryant: We’ve got so much to talk about today, so we better get started. But before we do, I just wanted to remind everyone out there that you can send us questions in confidence to familymatters@bryantmckinnon.com.au or message us on Facebook. And please do share this show with any friends and family who might be starting out on the rather scary journey of separation. The earlier we can be there to provide the answers, the better. Heather and Steve, are you ready?

Heather McKinnon: Yep.

Steve Wallace: Absolutely.

What does a private investigator do day-to-day?

Benjamin Bryant: Excellent. I think most of us think of Magnum P.I. or Sherlock Holmes when we hear the words private investigator. Can you give us some insight into what a real-life private investigator really does on a day-to-day basis?

Steve Wallace: Well, as an investigator, we get involved in all types of different matters, mainly with solicitors. And especially in the family law area, we get involved in locating people, missing assets, trying to sort out whether or not assets exist or don’t exist. But primarily our focus is on missing persons, and that kind of covers a lot of different areas. It covers service of documents, it covers investigations. It covers locating witnesses for court cases. So that’s our primary role.

What are the common misconceptions about private investigators?

Benjamin Bryant: And what are some of the common misconceptions that people have about PIs?

Steve Wallace: Well, one of the biggest misconceptions is there’s a lot of men hanging around in trench coats, which is…

Benjamin Bryant: I must admit, I thought of that.

Steve Wallace: Which is not the case. I mean, 90 percent of our team are female. There are only two males in the whole business. We have a team which is very diverse. We have our own in-house psychologist, our own criminologist in-house. So there’s very few agencies that have the kind of quality people that we have. And most of our people have been with us a very long time.

Steve Wallace: One of the biggest misconceptions I find in the family law area is the misconception where people believe that they have to physically accept a document by hand.

Benjamin Bryant: Trying to evade service or something?

Steve Wallace: Yeah, trying to evade service and, they see it on television quite often where, somebody goes up and they serve the document and they go, “You’re served”. Well, that’s not the case in Australia. You can leave the documents at people’s feet. There are all different methods of service, but to physically have to touch it is not required. That’s one of the biggest myths.

Heather McKinnon: Steve, just for our listeners, service is about making sure that if you’re taking your ex-partner to court, they know you’re doing it. So Steve’s role in our practice, or his team, is that when we file court documents, we then send them to Steve’s crew and they then go about making sure that the person who is on the other side of the case knows that they’ve got to come to court. And as Steve said, if you’ve got a resistant spouse, they can get up to all sorts of fun and games thinking that it’s like television, and if they run away from the person who’s got the documents that they’ll somehow be able to get away with facing what’s happening at court.

Benjamin Bryant: And I think the message also, Heather, is you can run, but you can’t hide. Because, of course, if Steve and his crew can’t find or locate or they successfully evade service somehow, then, of course the applicant can make an application for what’s called a substituted service order, which kind of does away with Steve and his team. And that’s when you hear stories about being served through Facebook or Instagram or you might even be able to send by registered post to the paternal grandmother or something like that. So you can run, but you can’t hide.

Heather McKinnon:  But it is important to know that the first step is getting Steve’s crew to try and find the person. So Steve does a report to us, to the judge that says, well these are the things my crew have tried and we can’t find them, then we can go through that process. So it’s a really fascinating world when people are in denial.

Do private investigators primarily focus on proving infidelity or adultery in family law?

Benjamin Bryant: And Steve, you mentioned before, and we certainly see on movies and popular fiction, you’re involved in cases where you need some evidence of cheating or adultery. Is that actually the case on a day-to-day basis for you? And if so, how do you deal with that? What did you do?

Steve Wallace: There wouldn’t be a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t ring us wanting that kind of service. We try to steer people away from that type of thing. It’s not our bread and butter as far as our industry is concerned. Well, our business. So we kind of tell people they should go and see either their marriage counsellor or go and see their solicitor.

Steve Wallace: I mean, an investigator is only going to either give you more of a headache or a very large bill for kind of telling something that you already really know and expect.

Benjamin Bryant: Fuel for the fire.

Steve Wallace: Exactly. It’s no-fault divorce. I mean, it’s other than knowing or feeling some desperate need to know what your partner’s up to. It seems pretty pointless.

Heather McKinnon:  It is incredible how, when a marriage or a relationship’s failing, the person in denial will go to huge lengths to pretend it’s not happening or to want to prove what they already know is happening. So both of us, as you said Steve, get calls all the time and it’s still, 40 or 50 years after no fault divorce, people are absolutely convinced that if they can prove that their partner’s doing the wrong thing, they’ll somehow get a prize for that. And it’s a hard part of your job to tell people, “No, that’s not going to happen”.

Steve Wallace: Yeah, we try to discourage them. But look, if they’re absolutely insistent, we will do the job. There was a couple of famous cases here, around this area, where people have spent enormous amounts of money to prove something that they already knew was happening, but they just wanted it on tape and they wanted some physical evidence of it.

Heather McKinnon: And I suppose there is a role because it can sometimes be the way that people come to an acceptance of the end of the relationship. So it is a finely balanced decision that you have to make with the client. If it is something that people really want to bring out into the open, then they have a right to employ your agency to try and prove it.

Steve Wallace: Absolutely.

How do private investigators track down hidden assets?

Benjamin Bryant: Steve, another thing that you said that you did was track down hidden assets to ensure that property settlements are, fair and above board. Can you explain to our listeners what’s involved in tracking assets and income?

Steve Wallace:  Locating assets are fairly difficult investigations because they can be hidden in all types of places. Some of the investigations we’ve done recently are mainly focused around businesses, which are normally family owned, husband and wife owns the business. They separate, one or the other gets the business. And then there’s some argument about the value of that business. We’ve had people hiding stock, putting things in different locations. And it’s our job to basically find that stock or those locations and say, “Hang on, these assets are located in this place”. Or you go into a premises and they say that there’s no stock and you walk into a stock room and you find the shelves floor to ceiling with stock and totally undervalued.

Steve Wallace: So our job there is basically to find the evidence and then pass it back to you guys, then get the valuers in and go “Well hang on, there’s assets at this location. You need to go and value those.”

Benjamin Bryant: Without mentioning names are you prepared to offer us an example?

Steve Wallace: Recently, I suppose the one up in Queensland was probably… It was a divorce, but it was a business that they basically walked away from, from a major franchisor and they basically opened up two doors down. But the husband opened the business up, not the wife. He took all the assets and claimed that there were no assets in the business. And we basically went in and we hired some equipment to get serviced to get in there. And this was not a small operation. This was major trucking and mining equipment. So we had to hire this stuff to drive in there to get it serviced so we could get inside the workshop to have a look and see where the assets physically were. And it worked out pretty well in the end.

Benjamin Bryant: And that’s hidden assets Steve. And I know we spoke briefly before we recorded about hidden income and you gave a great example that it was actually, a beautician that was doing things off the books. Did you want to tell our listeners about that one?

Steve Wallace: Yeah, that was a famous case from years ago and the gentleman in question had had a very serious accident and his wife had looked after him for a number of years after the accident and then basically became fed up with looking after him. And they separated and divorced. Part of the divorce settlement was he got the house and she got some of the other assets and she moved away here to the coast. Now, after about two years, there was a massive settlement for his injury. So she found out about the settlement and then she went back and claimed half the settlement, which was in the millions. So she claims she was unemployed, had no income. The solicitor got us engaged and he said to us, “Look, we believe that she’s running a business from this location, we believe it’s some kind of beauty business we need to get in there”.

Steve Wallace: So at that stage, we only had, I think, four investigators on the team and only one female. So we sent Tracy in to do the job. So over a two, three-month period, Tracy had nails, hair…. She always jokes that she didn’t have any hair left on her body. But she basically befriended this woman and to the point where she learned that there was a second set of books connected with this business that this woman’s claimed that she had no income on.

Steve Wallace: And eventually it all came out before the court and she basically got caught out lying Poor Tracy, it was always our standard joke that she had no hair left on her body.

Heather McKinnon: The things you do for work! It’s interesting though, people do let down their guard. I was involved in one a long time ago where a team of investigators came in but the agency sent in all young women who were chartered accountants. But the business, who was being investigated, had a little bit of a naivety about what young women can do. So they thought these people were just there recording some numbers, but over a period of time they were able to establish a massive, undisclosed source of income. And it is an interesting role, isn’t it, that part of what you do is take people off guard. They let down their guard. They deal with, that common idea is in the community, that young women don’t have brains and wouldn’t know what was happening. And sure enough, it works every time.

Steve Wallace: Certainly not with our team. We’ve got some great people who work for us. And we have one girl, Cassie, who is probably one of the best agents that I’ve ever come across. She’s only a young woman and the amount of people that she’s caught out is just unbelievable. You know, they just do not expect her to be a process server or an investigator or anything like that.

Are private investigators involved in domestic violence or child abuse cases?

Benjamin Bryant:  And Steve, sometimes people want to be able to present to the courts evidence of domestic violence, child abuse or neglect. Do private investigators offer services in that area?

Steve Wallace: Absolutely. We’ve worked here in Coffs Harbour a number of times with child protection There’s this situation where they go to court and the children are hidden away because the people usually are aware that they might lose their child by this stage. So they hide them away or they’ll send them somewhere that they can kind of disappear after the court case. Now, we’ve worked with a couple of organisations where we will do the surveillance right up on the morning of the court case. We know where the child is. If the orders are granted by the court, we’ve got our eyes on the children 100 percent of the time and basically then DOCS would get involved So, yeah, … It’s an important job. It’s a sad job, but it’s important, especially from the child’s point of view.

Heather McKinnon: And that’s surveillance work just finding out from neighbours and people like that, what the level of conflict is in a house, I imagine in those cases is really important… To get a brief together of evidence for a judge. It’s uncomfortable but we need to do it sometimes.

Steve Wallace: Yeah. Family law is never easy in a lot of circumstances. And we’ve come across some cases that, you just really don’t want to be involved in. But it’s needed. And our team, whilst they kind of cringe at some of the things they see, it’s important that they deliver the evidence.

Can a private investigator find my missing ex?

Benjamin Bryant: And Steve, we’ve had questions from our listeners about what to do if they wanted to get a divorce but their partner has disappeared or perhaps, they haven’t had contact with them for years. How can private investigators help in that situation?

Steve Wallace:  The industry term for it is skip tracing, which is kind of an industry specific term for a missing person So we would go about locating a person using our electronic systems to start with. We have a suite of data tools that gives us access to all kinds of records and that. Now these records, some are public, some aren’t. But the cost of having these data records is fairly prohibitive. We have one particular database search; it costs us twelve hundred dollars a month just to have access to it. And that’s just one tool of many.

Steve Wallace: So we basically will get a set of instructions to locate somebody. We had one early last year was a Chinese man. We had to locate him and he’d moved from China to New Zealand and New Zealand to Australia. Now, we worked on that case for probably about eight weeks and we finally found him down in Adelaide. And when we found him, he was just amazed that we’d actually found him. And he said, “Look, I haven’t seen my sister for 40 years. I know she’s here in Australia. Can you help me?” So its kind of was a bit of a chain. So Mr. Wu (and it’s on our website, you can see the whole story there) he engaged us to find his sister. Who, incidentally, after 40 years was living in Adelaide? So they were only about four suburbs apart, which it’s just amazing. But anyway, we located her as well and they’ve been a happy family ever since.

Heather McKinnon:  One of the ones that you did for us a few months ago was locating a young mother we needed to serve. And I just love the fact that you can access social media. And in that case, your crew were able to look at her social media photos and work out that she was renting a unit because the photos came up on realestate.com and your database identified them. And I just go, that is unbelievable. That generation just can’t help… Even if they were in hiding, they’ve still got to post.

Steve Wallace: Probably the most memorable case in our business, it always takes us back, a few years ago, we were asked to find, it was a deceased estate and this particular lady had died. She was very elderly. She’d never married. And prior to her death, she had lived with her brother and he had never married. But both of them were professionals. They had independent lives and they’d accumulated a lot of wealth between them. Properties at Pearl Beach, the Upper North Shore, they had commercial properties. It was in excess of ten million dollars’ worth of assets.  She left the entire fortune to three children that she’d met in 1972. Now, the only thing we had on this particular case was three names, Christian names only, not surnames, and an address from 1975 where she had corresponded with Christmas cards. So we went back, and it was in Brisbane, and we went back and we tracked through all the records. The way that electoral roll records back in those days were collated was just mind blowing. So we’ve gone back through all these things trying to find this surname. Anyway, it took us months and the house where they had lived had been pulled, renovated, pulled down, renovated three times. So there was this succession of owners and people in it. So eventually we linked in to what we believe was the surname and once we found the surname, we then found the parents. And once we found the parents, we found the children and the three kids.

Steve Wallace: Now, the whole thing is the reason why she left them the money was: in 1972, her and her brother went on a camping holiday over Christmas. And this family saw them on their own and said, “Join us for Christmas.” So they join them for Christmas. They then had a great time. They corresponded over a three-year period and then, in ’75, they lost contact. So, we always laughed, the moral of the story is be kind to everybody, you never know!

Heather McKinnon: Great story.

What tools do private investigators use to track down missing persons?

Benjamin Bryant:  Steve, you mentioned before the electoral roll search and you mentioned a very expensive platform, which you use… What are some of the ways (so our listeners know how they’re being tracked) that you can locate people? What are some of the systems that you can access?

Steve Wallace: Well, tenancy databases is one of the systems we access, so we can see where people can rent. We don’t use the electoral roll very often. Though, these days the electoral, believe it or not, is cross-referenced with RTA records and things like that. But knowing the information and proving where they are is the key to it. We have systems where we can trace through phone numbers, we can trace through names. We can bring up the websites and find out who created a website and look at the website back when it was first created When you’re doing business investigations, if something goes wrong in the business at this time period and people disappear and we’re busily trying to track them down for commercial reasons, we go back to websites when they were created, when people were out, promoting themselves and putting pictures of it all on the web and podcasts. And so you can build a picture back from back 10 years ago and kind of develop pictures from there. We can ping phone numbers to establish whether they’re still connected. It doesn’t tell you where they connected. It just tells you that, yes, it is connected. It’s active. It’s held by Telstra So you know that if somebody says this number’s not working, we can actually ping it and say, well, yes, it is We’ve used that in affidavits, especially the family court. So, you know, that’s where we link in with family law quite often.

Benjamin Bryant: And this is what they talk about Heather when they talk about digital footprints.

Heather McKinnon: I love this job.

Advice for anyone considering hiring a private investigator in a family law case.

Benjamin Bryant: And Steve, one final question. Do you have any advice for someone who is considering employing a private investigator in a family law matter?

Steve Wallace: Well if it’s for a purpose, where it’s going to provide good evidence to the court as to either some…. And one of the things I say to them, you know, there is no relevance to the court case if we provide evidence that they’re cheating or doing this. And we often say, if you’re insistent about doing this surveillance or doing this type of work, let us talk to you solicitor first. Because I like to talk the solicitor and say, “Well, what do you need? What is going to be admissible?” And there’s no point in us taking your money to do this job if it’s going to be irrelevant to you, and of no help to the solicitor.

Benjamin Bryant: That’s right. It’s not a moral assessment you need.  With property, it’s what is just and equitable. And with the parenting it’s what’s in the best interests of children. It actually doesn’t matter how they’re cheating or who’s cheating or who they’re cheating with.  those types of things.

Heather McKinnon: I do remember one that just came to mind that Steve was involved in like decades ago. But we were trying to show that this high functioning dad had a chronic alcohol dependency and Steve’s crew were able to survey the house and the garbage. And it was unbelievable. There was something like ten bottles of wine a night consumed by an adult in a house. And we were looking to put little kids in that house. But it’s that critical thing: What do you need the evidence for? What does the judge need to know about the family that isn’t before the judge at the moment?

Benjamin Bryant: And look out if you see Steve by your recycling bin

And that’s a wrap for this month…

Benjamin Bryant: That was very interesting and thank you for giving us a sneak peek into your world.

Steve Wallace: Thanks Ben. Thank you for the invite.

Heather McKinnon: And, Steve, I’d just like to thank you for all the work that you and the team have done over the years, it’s really helped us develop a really good practice. And we know that our clients are in safe hands when we bring you on board.

Steve Wallace: Thanks Heather we’ve had a long association and we really appreciate the effort you guys go to and we really enjoy working with you.

Benjamin Bryant: And we’ll continue to do so.

Benjamin Bryant: What a fabulous show. Heather, our little podcast program keeps getting better and better. And next month we are taking a break from podcasting. So there won’t be a new show in April. But in May, Heather and I will be back discussing a red-hot topic in family law and that’s the property settlement. The two of us are putting our thinking caps on and we’ll be sharing our top tips and tricks for getting a good property settlement. We’ll also touch on how the Covid pandemic has affected values and settlements and house prices Be sure to listen in if you are in the midst of working through a property settlement. And please let friends and family know who might be in this situation about the upcoming episode. If you have specific questions you would like to ask about your property settlement, then please feel free to either message us on Facebook or email familymatters@bryantmckinnon.com.au. So long as your question comes in before we record the show in mid-April, we will try to work an answer into the program.

Benjamin Bryant: Hope you enjoyed today’s show and we look forward to our next podcast in May. In the meantime, of course, we have a whole library of great podcasts available for your listening pleasure. Goodbye for now.

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