6 Mar 2013

Changes to Family Court bill dangerous, MPs told

10:17 pm on 6 March 2013

An organisation supporting victims of domestic abuse says the proposed removal of a Family Court clause introduced after a man killed his three daughters nearly 20 years ago is dangerous.

It is one of the changes proposed under the Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill, which the Government says will save money and free up a system clogged with issues it says can be settled outside of court.

On Wednesday, a parliamentary select committee heard submissions on the bill in Auckland from lawyers, mediators, and welfare organisations.

The Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill passed its first reading late last year.

It aims to repeal the Bristol clause, introduced after Alan Bristol killed his three daughters in 1994 while they were in his custody, despite him facing charges of assaulting his wife.

The clause requires judges not to grant custody to a parent or former partner who has been abusive if they have fears for the child's safety.

The organisation SHINE (Safer Homes In New Zealand) believes the proposal to have the Bristol clause removed is the most dangerous part of the proposed legislation.

Spokesperson Jill Proudfoot told MPs the organisation is dismayed.

"A person who has harmed the primary caregiver of their child - the mother of their child usually - can not be a good daddy."

Ms Proudfoot says domestic abuse often lies at the heart of custody battles with the cases she sees.

"They hadn't mentioned that domestic abuse was one of the issues, but as soon as you start talking it becomes really clear. So screening before that point is quite an expert job and quite hard to do well."

Ms Proudfoot says if the changes go ahead, pre-screening must be introduced to recognise those cases.

The bill proposes introducing a fee of almost $1000 to resolve a family dispute and restricting parents' and children's access to lawyers.

But lawyer Meryl Mikkelsen told the select committee on Wednesday the planned changes will silence children and make it tougher for parents who need help.

Ms Mikkelsen says couples often can't separate their needs from their children, and legal representation is needed from the outset to make sure the children's concerns are heard.