Little orders further Family Court review
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.