20 Apr 2017

Judge dismisses Family Court criticisms

7:47 am on 20 April 2017

The principal Family Court judge has fired back at criticisms from a new independent group that is pushing for changes to the way courts deal with violence against women.

Wellington Family Court and mediation room.

Wellington Family Court. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Judge Laurence Ryan said the allegations from the Backbone Collective that the courts were failing to protect women were unfair and based on flawed assumptions.

The group, which launched last month, has sent a list of 160 questions to the government, demanding answers to why the system is letting women down.

But Judge Ryan said a number of the questions were premised on erroneous interpretations and he was concerned Family Court judges were being painted as uncaring and unprofessional.

In a three page statement he said many of the questions had already been considered by parliament around family violence or had been dealt with by parliament recently.

"Unfortunately a number of the questions the collective now wants answered are premised on erroneous or flawed intepretations of, and assumptions about, the current legal framework in which the Family Court operates."

It was untrue the Family Court was secret or closed, he said.

"In fact the Family Court has been increasingly open to new media since law changes in 2004 and 2008 and many of its proceedings can be reported publicly."

Judge Ryan also disupted concerns from the collective that the court was unaccountable and minimised allegations of family violence during custody disputes.

"It particularly concerns me that Family Court judges are being painted unfairly as uncaring and unprofessional and as putting people in harm's way.

"This risks undermining public confidence in the courts and the impartial administration of justice, especially among people who may desperately need the court's help during a distressing period of their lives," Judge Ryan said.

Judges took an oath to do right to all manner of people under the law, he said.

"It is understandable that not all people who are enduring broken, painful or damaged relationships and who come to court seeking resolution or justice will go away satisfied.

"But a combative debate that pits the judiciary against those who rely on the court's help, guidance and intervention is not conducive to improving outcomes, especially for children."

In response to Judge Ryan's comments, The Backbone Collective said the Family Court needed to listen to the experiences of the women who use it.

Co-founder Deborah Mackenzie said 61 percent of the 310 women who had completed its survey so far said they did not feel safer after going through the court system.

"We really thought that people in authority and in the Family Court would want to know from the women that use their service whether it was working well or not," she said in a statement.

Judge's comments 'unprecedented'

Auckland Barrister and former family court lawyer Catriona MacLennan said she had never known a judge to be so outspoken.

"It's extremely unusual that the principal Family Court Judge has responded to the Backbone Collective in this way. I think it would be just about unprecedented actually."

She agreed with The Backbone Collective that the Family Court was not doing enough to protect women and children from family violence.

"I am contacted by women from all around New Zealand who are horrified by what happens in the Family Court, how they're not believed when the explain the violence that they and the children have been subjected to."