Lit­tle or­ders fur­ther Fam­ily Court re­view

The Dominion Post - - News - LAURA WAL­TERS

The Gov­ern­ment has or­dered a third re­view of the Fam­ily Court in un­der a decade, as it aims to fix a sys­tem ‘‘in cri­sis’’.

Jus­tice Min­is­ter An­drew Lit­tle said the terms of ref­er­ence of the planned re­view would be an­nounced in the next few weeks.

Fam­ily Court re­forms were brought in un­der the for­mer Na­tional gov­ern­ment in 2014, but Lit­tle said he was con­cerned about the im­pact the court was hav­ing on fam­i­lies and chil­dren.

Mean­while, Liz Lewes, who had been prac­tis­ing fam­ily law for 20 years, said the court was ‘‘in cri­sis’’.

‘‘It’s very clear that the changes that were made in 2014 are not work­ing ... It’s just a real mess,’’ she said.

‘‘The cur­rent cri­sis in the Fam­ily Court is just caus­ing so much harm for so many fam­i­lies.’’

The ef­fects of the hous­ing cri­sis, and New Zealand’s high rates of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, were flow­ing through to the Fam­ily Court, adding to the pres­sure.

‘‘There are fam­i­lies re­ally suf­fer­ing in our so­ci­ety,’’ she said, adding that fam­i­lies were un­able to move on with their lives and gain sta­bil­ity while be­ing slowly dragged through the court process.

Lit­tle said in some cases, de­ci­sions con­cern­ing chil­dren were tak­ing more than a year – ‘‘that is wrong’’, he said.

‘‘I’m suf­fi­ciently con­cerned about what I’m hearing, which is why we will be ini­ti­at­ing a re­view of the Fam­ily Court. We have a ma­jor con­cern about ac­cess to jus­tice gen­er­ally, and the time taken to get things sorted out is just way too long.’’

In the March edi­tion of the jus­tice news­let­ter, Lit­tle said ‘‘pub­lic con­fi­dence in the crim­i­nal sys­tem and fam­ily law has been eroded and a man­age­rial ap­proach has failed. We can do bet­ter, and we will do bet­ter’’.

Lewes said the for­mer gov­ern­ment did not lis­ten to con­cerns raised by lawyers and judges ahead of the 2014 re­forms, and the changes had re­sulted in peo­ple strug­gling to get court time, and judges be­ing put un­der in­creased pres­sure.

The num­ber of ‘‘with­out-no­tice ap­pli­ca­tions’’ (which go straight to a judge) re­lat­ing to child cus­tody is­sues now made up 88 per cent of ap­pli­ca­tions – Lit­tle re­ferred to a fig­ure of 70 per cent. Ei­ther way it was a sig­nif­i­cant jump from the 30 per cent level of such ap­pli­ca­tions be­fore 2014.

More par­ents were fil­ing with­out­no­tice ap­pli­ca­tions in an ef­fort to have their cases heard as soon as pos­si­ble.

Mean­while, other ap­pli­ca­tions of­ten took about six months, and some­times a year, to be re­solved, Lewes said.

"It's just a real mess." Fam­ily lawyer Liz Lewes

In that time re­la­tion­ships be­tween the par­ents, and be­tween chil­dren and par­ents could break down, es­pe­cially if one par­ent was only al­lowed su­per­vised con­tact in the in­terim.

One ser­vice scrapped in the 2014 re­forms was ac­cess to six free coun­selling ses­sions for es­tranged cou­ples.

The ses­sions helped peo­ple work out what their re­la­tion­ship was, and it could sup­port a more am­i­ca­ble process. Some­times it led to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, Lewes said. The coun­selling of­ten saved time, money, and re­la­tion­ships in the long-run.

The fam­ily lawyer also rec­om­mended giving the court the abil­ity to re­fer chil­dren to free coun­selling or ther­apy ses­sions. At the mo­ment, chil­dren could only re­ceive free coun­selling ses­sions if they met the men­tal health thresh­old.

Lit­tle said one of the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that needed to be ad­dressed in the re­view was about peo­ple’s ac­cess to le­gal ad­vice, and the fam­ily dis­putes res­o­lu­tion process.

Na­tional jus­tice spokesman Mark Mitchell said the 2014 re­forms were in­tended to em­power fam­i­lies to re­solve their par­ent­ing is­sues out­side court and min­imise the stress chil­dren of­ten faced when their par­ents sep­a­rated.

They aimed to en­sure the Fam­ily Court fo­cused on cases most in need of ju­di­cial ex­per­tise, es­pe­cially those in­volv­ing fam­ily vi­o­lence, he said.

He, too, was con­cerned at the in­creased with­out-no­tice ap­pli­ca­tions.

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