A Women's Refuge educator says changes to the Family Court system potentially increase the stress and risk to women in abusive relationships.
Under Ministry of Justice reforms introduced six months ago, separating couples are expected to resolve their issues including childcare out of court through mediation, unless their case is known to involve violence or abuse.
An educator for Women's Refuge in Whangarei, Stacey Pepene, says the changes mean women can still end up facing their abuser in mediation and can't be honest about what they want because they fear their estranged partner will punish them for it afterwards.
"Putting them in a room where they have to mediate with their abuser doesn't work for them. It's an intimidating place to be. Anything that she disagrees with or where she isn't appearing to agree with her abuser can result in major risk and major danger when they walk out of that room."
Ms Pepene said some women will not tell a lawyer or mediator they are being controlled or hurt out of fear that their partner or Child, Youth and Family will take their children. Unless mediators have a sound analysis of family violence, they may not pick up on subtle signs that the woman is hiding the truth.
Women trying to escape an abusive partner should first contact Women's Refuge for ongoing support before they enter the legal process, she said.
Process hard for some - lawyer
Whangarei lawyers working in the new system say it is not working well for vulnerable women, including those in abusive relationships.
Michele Miles, who has been in family law for 21 years, says women with abusive partners who do not disclose abuse are ending up in court having to file their own applications and represent themselves.
She said that is proving too hard for some - like a woman she met recently at the courthouse, who walked away in tears. The woman said she could not understand the judge's directions or deal with all the forms she had to fill in.
Ms Miles said Family Court judges can appoint lawyers once the case gets into court, but some women are giving up well before that. She said the mediation system may work for articulate middle-class couples unaffected by trauma, but many of her clients do not fit that mould.
Family Court concerns 'widespread'
Concerns about changes to the Family Court are widespread - and not confined to lawyers, the chairman of an inquiry into child abuse and domestic violence, Bill Wilson QC, says.
Mr Wilson said the Family Court emerged as a major problem for many of the 500 victims and frontline workers who had spoken to the Glenn Inquiry into Child Abuse and Domestic Violence.
Mr Wilson, a former Supreme Court judge, said it is becoming clear that the latest reforms to the court are not serving some of the most vulnerable people seeking its protection.
The inquiry's panel would propose significant change to New Zealand's entire system for dealing with family violence in its final report, due before Christmas, he said.
The Ministry of Justice believes that the family law reforms are working well, with most disputes being resolved out of court. In the past six months, 71 percent of cases coming to mediators have been resolved and a further 13 percent partly resolved.
Some Whangarei lawyers have said the Family Court is as busy as ever, despite the reforms, and the number of people now forced to represent themselves is causing frustration for judges and court staff.
The ministry said people are entitled to have a lawyer represent them if their case involves violence or abuse and that has not changed.
It said the Whangarei Family Court is busy because it is making a concerted effort to deal with a backlog of older cases.